Eighty-five years since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War

Eighty-five years ago, on July 17, 1936, the Spanish army led by General Francisco Franco launched a fascist coup aimed at toppling the elected government of Spain’s Second Republic. Workers and peasants across Spain responded with an armed insurrection, setting up factory committees and forming militias to fight the fascist troops. The Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939 had begun.

The Spanish Civil War was one of the great battles between the international working class and European fascism in the 20th century. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy sent tens of thousands of soldiers to join Franco. While the British, French and US ruling classes maintained a policy of non-intervention, blocking military aid to the Republic, there was mass sympathy in the international working class for the workers’ uprising against fascism. Tens of thousands travelled to Spain to fight Franco. The anti-fascist International Brigades numbered nearly 60,000 volunteers from 53 countries.

On the Spanish Civil War’s outcome hung the fate not just of Spain, but of Europe and the world. In France, Premier Léon Blum’s Popular Front government was stepping up the police repression of workers after the May–June 1936 French general strike, while a powerful strike movement unfolded in the United States that led to the formation of mass industrial unions. A victorious socialist revolution in Spain would have galvanized tens of millions of workers internationally.

The outcome, however, was a defeat of the working class that strengthened the fascist powers, paving the way for Hitler’s regime to launch the Second World War in Europe, five months after Franco’s April 1, 1939, victory speech. This war would claim 75 million lives, including six million Jews murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust.

In Spain itself, 500,000 people died in the Civil War, out of a population of 23.6 million. Half a million were forced to flee into exile, and 150,000 workers, artists and left-wing intellectuals were murdered behind fascist lines. After the war’s end, 20,000 supporters of the Republic were shot and an estimated one million people were interned in 300 concentration camps and prisons. Franco’s regime would survive for four decades, only falling amid mass protests and strikes in 1978.

The defeat of the working class was not inevitable. It is impossible to discuss this defeat, however, without discussing the irreconcilable conflict between the Trotskyist movement and Stalinism.

As the civil war unfolded, Trotsky, the co-leader with Lenin of the October Revolution and commander of the Red Army, explained that victory was possible if the workers took power and prosecuted the war against Franco via revolutionary methods. He stressed, moreover, that this strategy required building a new international revolutionary leadership of the working class, the Fourth International, to fight against Stalinism. The Fourth International was founded during the war, in September 1938, in Paris.

The Spanish Civil War provided a devastating confirmation of Trotsky’s warnings of the counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism. The Spanish Civil War broke out as the Soviet bureaucracy prepared the Great Purges, using the judicial frame-ups of the first Moscow Trials in August 1936 as a pretext to murder the surviving Old Bolshevik leaders of the October Revolution. In Spain, as well, the Soviet bureaucracy and the Stalinist Spanish Communist Party of Spain (PCE) waged a bloody struggle against revolution.

While arming the Spanish Republic, the Kremlin demanded that workers support the ruling Popular Front alliance of liberal bourgeois, social-democratic, Stalinist and anarchist forces. It worked to disband workers' organizations such as factory and supply committees, and subordinate anti-fascist militias to the capitalist state. And while Stalin’s secret police murdered the surviving leaders of the October Revolution—culminating in Ramon Mercader’s assassination of Trotsky on August 20, 1940, in exile in Coyoacán, Mexico—it systematically tortured and murdered revolutionaries in Spain.

The Spanish Civil War is a confirmation of the revolutionary role of the international working class and, in the negative, the critical role of revolutionary leadership. The lessons of the civil war are of burning contemporary relevance. Once again, the ruling class is turning to openly fascistic and authoritarian forms of rule, from the threats of a coup by neo-Francoite officers in Spain, to the rise of neo-fascist movements throughout Europe, to the transformation of the Republican Party under Trump into an ever-more openly fascist organization.

Franco’s coup and the workers' insurrection

Franco’s coup was a preemptive attack on a growing revolutionary movement in the working class. The social crisis caused by the 1930s Great Depression and an army revolt had brought down the monarchy in 1931, installing Spain’s Second Republic. This only intensified the growth of the class struggle, which erupted in 1934 with an insurrectionary strike by miners in the Asturias. Franco led the army in drowning the strike in blood, with at least 2,000 killed, another 30,000 taken prisoner and thousands more sacked.

The Spanish Popular Front won the February 1936 elections on the basis of promises of social reform. The Popular Front was a coalition of bourgeois Republicans, the social-democratic Socialist Party (PSOE), the Stalinist Communist Party of Spain (PCE), and the left-centrist Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), supported externally by the anarcho-syndicalist National Confederation of Labour (CNT). While the Popular Front sought to contain the class struggle, the masses forged ahead, occupying factories and farmland, freeing political prisoners and launching a wave of strikes against poverty wages.

As terror at the prospect of the loss of its privileges and profits gripped the ruling class, sections of the officer corps launched a coup to drown the growing mass movement in blood. On the morning of July 17, 1936, Franco flew into Morocco to take over the 30,000-strong Spanish Army of Africa. He then radioed a manifesto to garrisons in mainland Spain, calling on them to seize the cities.

The Popular Front government had prior knowledge of the coup, having been alerted to unusual military drills in Morocco and northern Spain weeks before. However, it kept this information from workers out of concern that it would fuel the revolutionary movement of the masses. After the coup, the government turned down requests from workers who demanded weapons to confront the fascist rebellion.

However, the workers, who on many occasions were equipped only with hunting rifles or knives, mobilized to fight the coup. In Barcelona, which was one of the most industrialised cities of Spain, the working class organised itself into armed defence committees and confronted the army with arms, explosives and motor vehicles. Workers also called on the soldiers to refuse their officers’ orders. In 24 hours, the Barcelona workers blocked and disarmed pro-Francoite forces in Catalonia.

Workers in Madrid, Valencia, Bilbao and Gijón followed the lead of the workers in Barcelona. The Asturian miners sent a column of 5,000 dynamiters to Madrid to assist. In Malaga, the workers initially had no arms and used petrol to set fire to barricades surrounding the military barracks. The Spanish sailors shot many of their officers, and sailors’ committees took control of the warships in the Spanish Republican fleet.

While hoping for a quick military triumph over the working class, the fascists had in fact provoked a revolutionary response. With workers’ committees and militias active in cities and on the front, a situation of dual power emerged between these organizations, on the one hand, and the capitalist state led by the Popular Front government, on the other.

Neighbourhood committees, defence committees and workers' control committees in the factories ruled Barcelona and much of Catalonia in all but name. These workers' organs expropriated factories, buildings and land; organised, armed and transported militiamen; formed patrols against fascist provocateurs; resumed factory production without managers; and requisitioned cars, trucks and food. The revolutionary atmosphere was captured in George Orwell’s famous Homage to Catalonia:

It was the first time that I had ever been in a town 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 workman. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black.

The fascist coup had failed in its initial objectives and initially did not have the upper hand. It held one-third of Spain—Old Castile and Galicia in the north, parts of the south around Seville, Spanish Morocco, and the Balearic Islands—mostly agricultural regions without major industries. Its army was composed of peasants conscripted by force and Moroccan subjects of Spanish imperialism.

At the time, Franco himself remarked pessimistically that the Civil War would be “immensely difficult and 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.”

“The conditions for victory of the masses in the civil war against the army exploiters,” Trotsky wrote, “are very simple in their essence.” Fascism, he noted, is a form of “bourgeois reaction. A successful fight against bourgeois reaction can be waged only with the forces and methods of the proletarian revolution.” Based on the lessons of the Russian Civil War, which had ended in the previous decade, Trotsky insisted that “The strategy of civil war must combine the rules of military art with the tasks of the social revolution.” He explained:

The revolutionary army must not only proclaim but also immediately realize in life the more pressing measures of social revolution in the provinces won by them: the expropriation of provisions, manufactured articles, and other stores on hand and the transfer of these to the needy; the redivision of shelter and housing in the interests of the toilers and especially of the families of the fighters; the expropriation of the land and agricultural inventory in the interests of the peasants; the establishment of workers’ control and soviet power in the place of the former bureaucracy.

The loyalties of Franco’s army could have easily been shaken. The 30,000 Moroccans in the Army of Africa had no vested interest in fighting for Spanish imperialism. As for the Spanish peasantry, it had been fighting for land ever since the Republic was proclaimed in April 1931. Around 1.5 million small rural proprietors held only 2.5-acre plots of land, forcing them to work on large estates to survive. In contrast, 50,000 members of the gentry owned half of Spain’s total acreage, and 10,000 landowners owned 250 or more acres. Millions more were landless and employed on the big estates.

The Popular Front government, however, refused to grant land to the peasants or the right to self-determination and independence to Spain’s colony in Morocco.

Bolshevism versus Popular Frontism

While the Popular Front parties used their ties to the Soviet bureaucracy to pose as sympathetic to the October Revolution, the Soviet Union, and the workers, they were in fact irreconcilably hostile to the unfolding revolutionary movement in the Spanish working class. Having blocked a revolutionary settlement of the class struggles that had erupted in Spain after 1931, they turned violently against the revolutionary struggle mounted by the working class against Franco.

Trotsky drew a parallel between Spain’s Popular Front and the bourgeois Provisional Government that emerged in Russia after the initial overthrow of the tsar in February 1917. Lenin and Trotsky led the Bolsheviks in opposing the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries who backed the Provisional Government and opposed transferring power to the workers and soldiers councils (soviets). After the Provisional Government made itself complicit in General Lavr Kornilov’s failed coup attempt in August 1917, the Bolsheviks led the working class in overthrowing it in October.

A day before Franco launched his coup, Trotsky published an article on the Spanish Popular Front and the POUM, returning to the experience of the Russian revolution of 1917. He wrote:

In reality, the Popular Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch. It also offers the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism. For it is often forgotten that the greatest historical example of the Popular Front is the February 1917 revolution. From February to October the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, who represent a very good parallel to the “Communists” [i.e., Stalinists] and the Social Democrats, were in the closest alliance and were in a permanent coalition with the bourgeois party of the Cadets, together with whom they formed a series of coalition governments. Under the sign of this Popular Front stood the whole mass of the people, including the workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils. To be sure, the Bolsheviks participated in the councils. But they did not make the slightest concession to the Popular Front. Their demand was to break this Popular Front, to destroy the alliance with the Cadets, and to create a genuine workers’ and peasants’ government. [“The Dutch Section and the International,” July 15–16, 1936]

The Stalinized Communist International had turned sharply to the right after the German bourgeoisie installed Hitler in power in 1933. This catastrophe had been made possible by the role of the German Communist Party (KPD), which had with criminal light-mindedness dismissed social-democratic workers as “social fascists,” rejecting a united struggle of the working class against the danger of Nazi rule. Dropping this policy in the face of the growing military threat from Nazi Germany after Hitler took power, Stalin now sought political relations even with bourgeois counterrevolution.

Calling for alliances with “democratic” imperialist states like Britain and France against fascist Germany and Italy, Stalin ordered the Communist parties to support and, where possible, join capitalist governments led by the liberal bourgeoisie. Local communist parties assumed the task of suppressing working class struggles against capitalist governments designated as “anti-fascist.”

In August 1936, the Stalinist regime launched the first of the Moscow Trials, charging leading Old Bolsheviks like Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev with forming a terrorist organization working with Trotsky in exile. All the defendants were framed based on lies, sentenced to death and shot. This was the beginning of the Great Purges, which involved a political genocide directed against representatives of revolutionary Marxism in the Soviet Union. Nearly one million people were murdered.

Trotsky summed up the Popular Front as the alliance of bourgeois liberalism with the GPU, the bloody Stalinist secret police. The Soviet bureaucracy and the Popular Front intervened in Spain to strangle the developing revolution, murder its leading representatives, terrorize the working class and prevent its struggles from acquiring a fully conscious revolutionary form.

The Popular Front sabotages the struggle against fascism

Throughout the Spanish Civil War, as the imperialist democracies isolated the Republic, the Soviet Union was the only weapons supplier to the Spanish Republic. The Kremlin provided sub-standard arms, demanding payment in gold or raw materials. Through its influence on the Republican government, the Stalinist PCE ensured that Soviet supplies like artillery and planes were sent only to PCE-controlled centres, at the expense of other important areas like the Aragon front, controlled by workers’ militias.

The Stalinists used their position in government to sabotage CNT and POUM militias, transferring them to the most difficult fronts and using the resulting defeats to call for the dissolution of the workers’ militias and their replacement with units under Popular Front control. In Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, the Trotskyist writer Felix Morrow explained how the Popular Front sabotaged the war effort as it waged a deadly struggle against the working class:

General Pozas initiated what was ostensibly a general offensive in June. After several days of artillery and aerial conflict, orders to advance were given to the 29th (formerly the POUM’s Lenin) division and other formations. But on the day for the advance, neither artillery nor aviation was provided to protect it… Pozas later claimed this was because the air forces were defending Bilbao—but the day of advance was three days after Franco had taken Bilbao. The POUM soldiers fully realized that they were being exposed deliberately.

The Soviet bureaucracy instructed the PCE to agitate against the workers’ committees. Under the slogan “first win the war, then make the revolution afterwards,” the PCE became the most fervent defenders of law and order, aiming to quell any independent action by the working class.

The Stalinists spread rumours to demoralise the workers and call for the murder of revolutionaries. They claimed that the POUM and CNT were infiltrated by fascist agents, declaring that both were “objectively fascist.” PCE secretary José Diaz wrote: “Our principal enemies are the Fascists. However, these not only include the Fascists themselves, but also the agents who work for them… Some call themselves Trotskyites… If everyone knows this, if the government knows it, why doesn’t it treat them like Fascists and exterminate them pitilessly?”

On this counterrevolutionary political line, the PCE developed a social base among affluent social layers who desperately feared socialist revolution. In his 1991 work The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution, historian Burnett Bolloten writes,

[T]he PCE gave the urban middle and rural classes a powerful infusion of new hope and vitality … these new recruits were not attracted by Communist principles, but by the hope of saving something from the old social system. […] Thus, from the outset, the Communist party appeared before the distraught middle classes not only as a defender, but as a champion of the Republic and orderly processes of government.

With the aid of the Stalinists, the Popular Front was able to disband the workers’ militias, strengthen the Republican Army, reinstate press censorship and hand back to the bourgeoisie the farms and factories seized by the workers and peasants.

Stalinism was able to push through its counterrevolutionary program only because none of the major workers’ organizations opposed the Popular Front and fought for a revolutionary policy. Responsibility in this lies above all with the centrist POUM led by Andreu Nin.

The POUM refused to lead a systematic struggle against the Popular Front or to advance a revolutionary perspective for the struggles of the working class under the Popular Front government. Nin had known Trotsky for over a decade and a half and had belonged to the Left Opposition, the precursor of the Fourth International. Had he sought to link the POUM to Trotsky’s struggle to found the Fourth International, this would have given a powerful impetus to the development of the Trotskyist movement.

Instead, Nin cut the POUM membership off from Trotskyism and formed opportunist alliances based on tactical national considerations—an orientation that led him into the camp of the Popular Front and the capitalist state machine.

The POUM signed the Popular Front agreement in January 1936. When workers rose up in Catalonia against Franco’s coup, Nin joined the Catalan regional Popular Front government as Justice Minister in September 1936 and sought to subordinate the working class to the government. Nin even travelled to the city of Lleida to dissolve the city’s workers’ committee, which was led by POUM members.

At that point Nin had served his purpose for the counterrevolution, however, and after a Stalinist campaign denounced the POUM as Trotskyist, the POUM was expelled from government. Even after this, however, the POUM continuously petitioned to be allowed back into the capitalist government.

The May Days of 1937 in Catalonia

The bankruptcy of Nin’s Popular Front orientation was again exposed during the 1937 May Days, when the Catalan regional state and the authorities in Madrid, supported by the Stalinists, launched a military assault on the Barcelona telephone exchange, occupied by the workers since July 1936. This assault came amid mounting working class anger at growing levels of hunger, the lack of housing and pro-market policies. It provoked a renewed workers insurrection.

The working class spontaneously rose up in defence of the gains of the revolution, seizing most of the city except a small pocket in the centre controlled by Stalinist and Republican forces. For four days, the workers effectively controlled Barcelona. The working class could have taken power in Barcelona and fought for a revolutionary seizure of power across Spain.

The critical problem that again emerged, however, was that of revolutionary leadership. The POUM and the CNT leaders, who had been surprised by events, called for a ceasefire during the week of street fighting, pressing workers to lift the barricades. Only the small group of Bolshevik-Leninists affiliated to the Fourth International, together with some rank-and-file members of the POUM and the Anarchist Friends of Durruti, called on workers to take power and opposed calls for a ceasefire.

Had the POUM adopted an intransigently revolutionary policy, calling for the creation of a workers government and the overthrow of the Popular Front regime, its 40,000 members would have placed themselves at the head of the working class. Through the May Days uprising, the working class was signalling its readiness for a revolutionary policy—the forming anew of independent workers organisations and a struggle for power. Instead, the POUM converted itself into the left flank of the Popular Front, which then brutally dispensed with the POUM as soon as it felt able to do so.

Once the barricades were lifted after the May Days, the Popular Front directed mass counterrevolutionary violence against the working class. The POUM was outlawed and its leadership arrested. Nin himself was kidnapped and tortured barbarously, skinned alive and then executed by Soviet GPU agents.

Thousands of militant workers were detained in makeshift secret prisons run by the PCE, and some 20,000 prisoners were sent to labour camps. Hundreds were murdered. Trotsky’s secretary Erwin Wolf, the Trotskyist Hans David Freund, POUM member Kurt Landau and CNT anarchists critical of the CNT’s collaboration with the Stalinists were all assassinated. Historian Agustín Guillamón writes in Insurrection: The Bloody Events of May 1937 in Barcelona (2020):

By 1938, the revolutionaries were under the soil, in jail, or in hiding. The antifascists in prison numbered in the thousands. Hunger, air raids, and Stalinist repression were lords and masters in Barcelona. The militias and work had been militarized. Bourgeois order now prevailed throughout Spain, in the Francoist camp and in the republican alike. The revolution was not crushed by Franco in January 1939; Negrín’s Republic had done that many months before that.

The war was to last another two years, but it consisted of an uninterrupted advance of Franco’s forces, as the Popular Front government implored Franco for peace negotiations. Barcelona fell without any significant resistance. In March 1939, Colonel Segismundo Casado launched a coup within Republican territory and called for a peace deal with the fascists. Franco would only accept unconditional surrender, however, and the following month Franco’s troops marched into Madrid, ending the Civil War.

The working class mounted a heroic struggle, but Stalinist counterrevolution and centrism opened the way to a fascist victory. Trotsky refuted those who blamed this defeat on the working class. Found at his desk in Coyoacán after his assassination by Mercader in August 1940 was an article titled “Class, Party, and Leadership.” Replying to a French Stalinist periodical, Que faire, which blamed the defeat on the “immaturity of the working class, lack of independence of the peasantry.” Trotsky wrote:

The historical falsification consists in this, that the responsibility for the defeat of the Spanish masses is unloaded on the working masses and not those parties which paralyzed or simply crushed the revolutionary movement of the masses. The attorneys of the POUM simply deny the responsibility of the leaders, in order thus to escape shouldering their own responsibility. This impotent philosophy, which seeks to reconcile defeats as a necessary link in the chain of cosmic developments, is completely incapable of posing and refuses to pose the question of such concrete factors as programs, parties, personalities that were the organizers of defeat. This philosophy of fatalism and prostration is diametrically opposed to Marxism as the theory of revolutionary action.

Lessons of the Spanish Civil War

Eighty-five years after the Spanish Civil War began, and over a century after the October Revolution, these events speak more directly to contemporary politics with every passing day. Three decades after the Stalinist dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, none of the contradictions of capitalism that underlay the rise of fascism in the 20th century have been resolved. The working class still faces economic crises, growing social inequality, imperialist military aggression and growing police state rule.

The response of the ruling class to these problems, enormously accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, is to turn back towards the political heritage of 20th century European fascism.

The starkest expression was the January 6 coup launched by former US President Donald Trump, supported by factions of the US state and the Republican Party, when several thousand right-wing extremists stormed the Capitol in Washington, D.C. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently described it as “a Reichstag moment,” referring to the 1933 Reichstag Fire, which Hitler used as a pretext to assume dictatorial powers and impose mass terror against the working class.

This was not the product simply of Trump’s deranged character but is rooted in a mortal crisis of US and world capitalism. Every imperialist ruling class is turning to the far right. The German political establishment elevates the far-right Alternative for Germany as the official opposition and showers right-wing extremist professors like Jörg Baberowski with funding while they minimize the crimes of Nazism. In both France and Spain, cabals of far-right officers are publicly agitating for a military coup and calling for mass killings.

The defence of social and democratic rights and the struggle against war require a political struggle of the international working class, based on the lessons of the bloody defeat in the Spanish Civil War. These are Trotsky’s emphasis on revolutionary internationalism, the political independence of the working class, and irreconcilable opposition to all forms of bourgeois nationalism, Stalinism, social-democracy and petty-bourgeois radicalism.

The defence of democratic rights can proceed only as a struggle of the working class for socialism. This requires building a revolutionary leadership irreconcilably hostile to the political descendants of Popular Frontism, which the ruling class has for decades falsely promoted as the “left.” While they have entirely lost the social base their Stalinist and social-democratic political ancestors had in the working class, their violent hostility to the working class and socialist revolution remains.

In Spain, the accelerating collapse of the parliamentary-democratic regime cobbled together by the Francoite regime and Santiago Carrillo’s PCE in 1978 has exposed the pseudo-left Podemos party. It has been in power for two years, implementing a programme of bank bailouts, pension cuts and building concentration camps for refugees. It helped implement the EU’s herd immunity policy, placing profits over lives, leading to 100,000 deaths in Spain and 1.1 million across Europe.

This filthy record is based on the legacy of Popular Frontism. Indeed, former Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias was on a first-name basis with Carrillo before Carrillo died in 2012. A PCE youth leader during the Civil War, Carrillo played an important role in the counterrevolutionary violence against Trotskyists and the working class. Shortly before his death, Carrillo boasted that “in the 1930s, no communist militant asked to assassinate Trotsky would have refused to so.” Iglesias responded with a sympathetic obituary of Carrillo in Público, writing: “Despite everything, Santiago was one of ours. Now and forever.”

Unsurprisingly, Podemos downplays the Spanish Civil War. Its cofounder Iñigo Errejón in fact stated that he was opposed to bringing public debate “back to the memory of the Spanish Civil War… This is a scenario that scares the elderly, and which doesn’t mean so much to the young, as it happened a long time ago. While we’re clear on what side we’d take in such an argument, we also know that nostalgia doesn’t win battles, but that defeats unfortunately do build defeat.” In fact, Podemos is clear that in the Spanish Civil War it takes the side of Stalinist counterrevolution.

The lessons of the 1930s must be learned. The critical task today in the struggle against fascistic authoritarianism is the building of a revolutionary leadership to continue Trotsky’s struggle for socialist revolution against both the far right and the pseudo-left. This means building sections of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) in Spain and internationally to mobilize the international working class in a struggle for socialism.