The Barcelona May Days of 1937

Last year was the 70th anniversary of the war in Spain. The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 has evoked more political comment and historical reflection than almost any other event in modern times. With each passing decade, the myths of Spain do not diminish as the supporters of the various protagonists in that war all vie to have their version of events dominate political discourse.

This year sees the anniversary of the events of May 1937 which many wrongly see as the end of the revolution in Spain. As the article about those events which we have translated and are reprinting here from Bilan 41, monthly theoretical bulletin of the Italian fraction of the Communist Left, shows, there was at least one current within the working class which defended the independent interest of the working class. Whilst almost everyone else was rushing to support (critically or not) the Spanish Republic, Bilan from the very beginning (1) pointed out that the support for a bourgeois state meant the automatic abandonment of the revolutionary programme. Their analysis was to be proved right as the war went on and the illusions of those who thought that they were making a revolution were crushed. Bilan also clearly saw the international context in which the working class was struggling.

"The fact that world war has not yet broken out does not mean that the Spanish and international proletariat has not already been mobilised for the purpose of butchering itself under the imperialist slogans of fascism and anti-fascism." (Bilan 34 (August-September 1936

In historical terms the international working class was still staggering under the weight of the material and ideological defeat of the revolutionary wave that followed the First World War. The last gasps of this revolutionary wave had died in 1927 along with thousands of Chinese workers betrayed into a united front alliance with the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang which had then butchered them. The isolation of the one successful bastion where workers had destroyed the power of the capitalist state had led to the demise of the soviets, the real organs of workers’ power, and the rise of a partyocracy which, under the dictatorship of Stalin, set about destroying whatever was left of the proletarian achievement of October 1917. In the course of this counter-revolution all the truly revolutionary elements in the Communist International were expelled. In Italy the Left had not only founded the Communist Party of Italy but continued to dominate the thinking of its members even after Bordiga and his allies had been removed from the leadership in 1923 and Gramsci’s leadership imposed upon the Party by the Comintern Executive Committee. Gramsci only succeeded in getting rid of the left by threatening to cut off salaries to officials who voted against his Lyons Theses. Whilst Bordiga eventually retired from political life, and others like Damen spent most of the inter-war years in Fascist gaols, some members of the Left formed the fraction in exile at Pantin, near Paris, in 1928. They recognised that the working class had been terribly defeated, although they also saw that it was premature to found a new party as the political clarity about that defeat had not yet emerged. (2)

Just how profound that defeat was took some time to absorb and it would only be in the 1940s that members of the Italian Fraction would fully understand the class nature of the USSR. However, in 1936 and 1937 they were already aware that “the Soviet State” was playing the role of hangman of the proletariat and would “deliver them over to the general staff of both sides”.

To put the text in its real context we have written a brief historical introduction to show that the Bilan analysis was not something abstracted from all reality but based solidly on what was actually going on in Spain at the time. This is necessary, if only to combat those who are brought up on sentimental notions that proletarian victory was just around the corner in Spain 1936, or those who are still enmeshed in the notion that anti-fascism is something other than a fight for bourgeois democracy.

IBRP April 2007

The General’s revolt and the workers’ resistance

I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control in Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing... It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle... In outward appearances it was a town in which the wealthy classes had ceased to exist.

Homage to Catalonia

This famous description of Barcelona in December 1936 from the opening passage of George Orwell’s book contains many of the illusions of the time, and not just in the English-speaking world, about the situation in Spain after July 19th 1936. On the previous day, General Franco had led his pronunciamiento against the Popular Front Government elected only the previous February. In the normal course of events in Spain, such military coups normally succeeded instantly and a new dictatorship would emerge. Had the Popular Front Government had its way, Franco’s golpe de estado would have been no different. On the very day of the coup, the Prime Minister Casares Quiroga, with the support of the President Manuel Azaña, announced that anyone giving arms to the workers would be shot. Meanwhile he was trying to negotiate with the Francoists. When he failed, Azaña then called on the Speaker of the Cortès, Martinez Barrio, “the arch priest of compromise” (3) to try to do a deal with Franco whilst ignoring the 100 000 workers who marched to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol demanding arms. It was only the refusal of the then plot leader, General Mola, to agree to a national coalition government that prevented the two wings of the bourgeoisie from reaching an agreement against the working class. At this point Giral, a close personal friend of the President, became the third Prime Minister in less than twenty four hours. He concluded that there was no alternative but to arm the workers since some workers had managed to seize arms (either from Government depots or from the conscripts of the regular army who joined them) and were already fighting back. The leaders of the Spanish Socialist Party, Largo Caballero and Indalecio Prieto were as horrified at this as the bourgeois liberals. Only when Giral said it would be done in a controlled way through the trade union organisations, the Socialist UGT and the Anarchist CNT, did they accept it. The reason why we have presented this story in such detail should now be clear: the bourgeoisie of all parties, including those which represented the working class in the Spanish parliament (The Cortes) were united in opposing any idea of workers’ initiative on the streets as any real popular revolt would rob them of their power.

In a sense their prevarications meant that they were already too late and had lost control of the situation. In the territories which rallied to the Republic, and above all in Barcelona, the workers not only launched a general strike but in many cases defeated the Army plot with pathetically few weapons. In many towns and cities including Madrid, Bilbao, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Gijon, Valencia, Cartagena, and even Malaga, the workers were victorious. And as the bourgeoisie feared the popular resistance awakened the consciousness of the workers. This comes as no surprise to Marxists who understand that it is the very act of revolution which transforms human consciousness. In Spain it was no different. Workers began to set up committees to take over the functions of a state which had collapsed as a result of the Generals’ coup. Post and telegraph offices, radio stations, telephone exchanges, border posts, transport and supply depots were all controlled by committees. However as these committees were generally made up of representatives of the trades unions, the UGT and CNT under the so-called working class parties their future development depended on the line that the parties took on the question of revolution. And this was the problem. Ominously the spontaneously created workers’ militias were, on July 23rd put under an Anti-Fascist Militia Committee. This became the main directing organ of the workers in Barcelona. Or, in other words, the struggle was being immediately transformed from one of social revolution against all bourgeois factions into support for the left bourgeoisie.

The Popular Front Government had been elected in February 1936. It was made up of the Stalinist Spanish Communist Party (PCE), the Socialists (PSOE), and the various left bourgeois and regional parties. It even had the open support of the Anarchist CNT (although as a syndicalist organisation it did not put up candidates itself) a factor which was critical to its electoral success. From the start, the task of the Popular Front was to calm the class struggle but workers expected it to deliver social justice in the face of Spain’s chronic economic backwardness. The fact that it itself had to carry out massacres of workers and farm labourers at places like Casas Viejas to try to impose its authority showed what little success this bourgeois project had. As the strikes, assassinations, and land seizures by poor landless labourers continued the Spanish Right prepared their coup. The difference between the two sides, between Franco and Azaña, was not one of class, as they shared a fear of the “communism” of the working classes, but on which policy was best to employ to defeat the class movement. In the first few days after the failed coup, the working class had gone beyond the Popular Front whose leaders had sought a compromise regime of all the capitalist classes against the working class. At this critical juncture the question that should have been posed was the question of state power. In the chaos of the days after the coup, state power collapsed and workers’ actions took advantage of the vacuum. But filling a void is not the same thing as consciously destroying the bourgeois state. In this situation, the working class needed its own autonomous party with programme based on the need to maintain the revolution, further fraternise with the conscripts who were still in the Francoist armies and maintain the class war. But no such party with a deep enough implantation in the Spanish working class existed. Instead, the workers who were organised were in the PSOE trade union, the UGT, or the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. Both these organisations were to play a central role in the re-establishment of the bourgeois state under the banner of the Popular Front. On a national level it was clear by late autumn that a Popular Front headed by bourgeois liberals did not have a great deal of credibility amongst workers who believed that they were fighting for a new society, so Largo Caballero, the PSOE leader became Prime Minister with the quiet encouragement of the PCE. Largo Caballero was a veteran reformist who had even accepted the post of Minister of Labour under the monarchy. However, under the Republic he adopted adventurist policies, styling himself the “Spanish Lenin”. His greatest betrayal was the 1934 general strike which he called but was a complete flop (and Largo Caballero allowed himself to be arrested so that he could disown it). Unfortunately, the miners of Asturias had taken his call for a strike seriously, and broke out in open revolt. This revolt was left isolated and crushed, with thousands of dead and wounded by Moroccan legionaries led by Franco. As Prime Minister, Largo Caballero was increasingly the tool of the PCE which was growing in support, particularly amongst the middle class and small proprietors on the Republican side, precisely because it was following Stalin’s orders that the revolution must be suppressed in order for Stalin to continue his policy of seeking an alliance with France and Britain against Hitler. As Stalin was also the Republic’s major weapon supplier, PCE power inside the Governmental apparatus increased dramatically. By May 1937, they were ready to dispense with Largo Caballero for a more pliant front man. This already brings us to the question of the international context in which the Spanish War was taking place, but, before we tackle that, let us look at what the anarchists did to aid the restoration of the Spanish state through their support for the Popular Front.

The anarchists of the CNT-FAI

In theory, the breakdown of the state in July 1936 was an anarchist dream come true. Now the question of finishing off the bourgeoisie was on the agenda, especially in Barcelona. But what happened? When the anarchist leaders, Garcia Oliver and Juan Peiro went, on July 20th, to see the President of the Generalitat, Luis Companys, the latter played a rhetorically localist card. Apologising for past repression of the anarchists he told them that

If you do not need me or do not wish me to remain as President of Catalonia, tell me now, and I shall become one more soldier in the fight against Fascism. If, on the other hand, you believe that, in this position which, only as a dead man, would I have abandoned had the Fascists triumphed, if you believe that I, my party [the Esquerra, a Catalan left bourgeois party - IBRP], my name, my prestige, can be of use, then you can count on me and my loyalty as a man who is convinced that a whole past of shame is dead and who desires passionately that Catalonia should henceforth stand amongst the most progressive countries in the world.

From Garcia Oliver’s own memoir De Julio a Julio, quoted in H. Thomas, The Spanish Civil War p210-1

The result was that the bourgeois regime of the Generalitat in Catlaonia was saved. The CNT called off the general strike on July 23rd and on the 26th the CNT of Catalonia formally announced that its members should “look no further” than the defeat of fascism. By September, there were three anarchist ministers in the Catalan Government, which the CNT dubbed “the Regional Defence Council”, in order to disguise the fact that it had actually entered a bourgeois government. In short the independent working class action which had brought about a potential revolutionary situation was peremptorily abandoned for a Union Sacreé (4) with the Republican bourgeoisie in the anti-fascist struggle and the defence of bourgeois democracy.

And this was only the beginning of the anarchist betrayal of their principles and the working class. The bourgeoisie, which included the PCE, fully intended to restore state power as soon as possible (the CNT might have thought it could be generous in calling off the class war until Franco was beaten but the capitalist class will never do such a thing even for minute). The CNT went further in destroying the revolutionary pretensions of the working class. In order to further fool the workers and make them believe that it was “their” democracy they were fighting and dying for, the bourgeoisie decided to bring Largo Caballero to power in November 1936. Grossly flattered by the PCE as the “Spanish Lenin”, the leader of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) formed a “Government of Victory” which contained Communists, Socialist and Left Republicans. As the name implied there was to be no more talk of “total revolution”, everything was to be submitted to the military need to defeat the Nationalists. However, this was to be a process taking many months leading up to May 1937. The next step in the assistance the CNT gave to the restoration of the power of the bourgeois state came in November 1937. In that month, the CNT-FAI leaders, Juan Peiro, Federica Montseny and Garcia Oliver all entered the Largo Caballero ministry. The CNT’s daily paper, Solidaridad Obrero described this as

... the most transcendental day in the political history of our country. [emphasis ours - IBRP]

To justify this required a bit of double-speak worthy of Stalinism.

The government in this hour, as the regulating instrument of the organisms of the State, has ceased to be an oppressive force against the working class, just as the State no longer represents the organism which divides society into classes. And both will tend even less to oppress the people as a result of the intervention of the CNT [in the government].

Both quotes from Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution p69

What the CNT were doing was playing the bourgeois game in defiance of its stated positions. They were not alone in falling for the anti-fascist rationale but their betrayal seems the greater given the theoretical positions of anarchism for the preceding three generations. What these actions demonstrate is the political weakness of anarchist theory. The slide into nationalism (note the emphasis we added to the words “our country” above) and the insistence that fighting fascism was the same as revolution was simply an ideological camouflage which hid the betrayal of the CNT. They had now helped to set the stage for the increasingly powerful PCE to engineer their next manoeuvre against the working class.

Against this political critique of the CNT’s leadership, anarchists take refuge in the notion that there was still a social revolution at grassroots level and that this was the most important thing. Revolution cannot be anything else than the product of the conscious actions of the great mass of human beings. If it is not, it will be no revolution. And there is no doubt that many of the social experiments carried out in the towns and villages on the Republican side were prefigurations of a better society. However, even anarchist writers like Jose Peirats and Vernon Richards recognised that the collectives were far from ideal representatives of “libertarian communism” . Many simply took over the running of factories abandoned by Franco supporters (significantly, even in Barcelona any capitalist who stayed was allowed to continue as before). Richards admits that many of the self-managed agricultural collectives did not function other than as “a kind of collective capitalism” (5). This echoes Marx criticism of Proudhon’s petty bourgeois schemes from the previous century. However whatever the strengths and weaknesses of these bodies were it is in a sense irrelevant. The whole question of revolution centres around who controls the state. Some anarchists may have fantasised that in their little commune the writ of the Republican state did not run but this was an illusion which was to be cruelly exposed after May 1937. Once again the Italian fraction had a clear reply.

...historic experience has shown that there can be no question of collectivisation, of workers’ control, of socialist revolution before the abolition of the political power of the bourgeoisie. (6)

All the bourgeoisie did was lie low or acquiesce in land and factory takeovers, awaiting the time when private property could be restored. The same Companys, President of the Generalitat or regional Government in Catalonia, who had so flattered the CNT leaders when the workers rising was at its height, later said of the CNT that

it has assumed the role, abandoned by the rebellious army, of controlling and protecting society and has become an instrument in the hands of the democratic government.

the Italian Fraction saw through the bourgeois strategy as early as August 1936.

In Barcelona reality is hidden behind a façade. Because the bourgeoisie has temporarily withdrawn from the political scene, and because certain enterprises are being run without the bosses, some people have come to the conclusion that bourgeois political power no longer exists. But if it didn’t really exist then we would have seen another power arise: the power of the proletariat. And here the tragic answer given by reality is very cruel. All the existing political formations, even the most extreme (the CNT), openly proclaim that there can be no question of attacking the capitalist state machine - for even headed by Companys it can be “of use” to the working class...Class struggle does not develop through a series of material conquests which leave the enemy’s apparatus of power untouched, but through the outbreak of genuinely proletarian actions.

“Against the Imperialist Front and Massacre of the Spanish Workers” in Bilan 34

Genuine proletarian actions like the general strike in July 1936 which the CNT and UGT called off after 5 days in order to support the bourgeois government of the Republic in the “anti-fascist struggle”.


But the CNT was not the only organisation which had the confidence of many workers and yet sold them short. To many who romanticise about the “Spanish Revolution” the best organisation was the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, or the POUM, to use its Spanish acronym. Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom (7), the writings of such as George Orwell, and the murder of their leader Andres Nin at the hands of the Stalinist secret police in Spain after May 1937, have all increased the prestige of the POUM in the eyes of many who look for a cause to support in the Spanish War. The reality is that the POUM (which was really only strong in Catalonia), although winning solid working class support through its campaign for wages rises and a 36 hour week, was as culpable as the CNT in leading the workers back into support for the bourgeois state. Even before the war, in January 1936, the POUM had joined with the Socialist, Stalinist and left bourgeois parties in the electoral block of the Popular Front. But, when the war broke out they lined up with the CNT in the strike and insurrection against the military. When the anarchists called off the general strike, the POUM did the same two days later when the workers economic demands were met. Nin then accepted the post of Councillor of Justice in the Catalan Government and began to justify it with the following pieces of nonsense

The workers defeated fascism and were fighting for socialism... In Catalonia the dictatorship of the proletariat already exists... We were part of a profound social revolution is Spain; our revolution was more deep than that which swept through Russia in 1917.

From the POUM paper La Battalla, quoted in The War in Spain, Janauary 1937

The illusion that the revolution was going forward and that the workers were in control (because the POUM were in the Catalan Government!) was to prove costly to the POUM. International imperialist rivalry also played a part in their demise. In the USSR, Stalin was determined to wipe out the Bolshevik Old Guard and the thousands of other workers who still retained revolutionary ideas even after the decline and defeat of the revolution in Russia. This was the cause of the show trials and purges which were going on in Moscow at that very time. With imperialist war looming and Stalin seeking alliances in the West, the purges moved on to an international stage. The POUM’s paper, La Batalla, carried more denunciations of the events in Moscow than any other, and in Moscow it was decided that they should be silenced. From the beginning, the PCE worked to crush the POUM. The PCE representatives in the Caballero Government and the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC) both demanded constantly that these “Trotskyist terrorists” “in alliance with fascism” should be arrested. In December 1936 Nin was forced out of the Catalan Government but Largo Caballero prevented any further steps against the POUM. This, and his refusal to unite the Socialist Party with the PCE (as had already happened in Catalonia where the PSUC had been formed) also sealed Largo Caballero’s fate as Prime Minister.

The rise of the Spanish Communist Party

This brings us to the May 1937 events themselves. In July 1936, the PCE was a relatively small organisation of some 40 000 members. However, it was already gaining ground rapidly thanks to the policy of the Popular Front which had been adopted in 1935 at the Seventh Comintern Congress after the Nazi takeover in Germany. Now the aim was to do deals with bourgeois parties in the democracies in order for the USSR to forge an alliance with the Western bourgeois regimes of Britain and France. It was just one more piece of evidence to demonstrate that the USSR was not a workers’ state but part of the imperialist framework of capitalism. Just how sincere this policy was would be revealed in 1939 when Stalin did a volte-face and signed a deal with Hitler. It also shows that from the very beginning, as the Italian Fraction maintained all along, the so-called Spanish Civil War was an imperialist war. The only chance of breaking out of it was for the workers themselves to have turned this intra-bourgeois faction fight into a real civil war between classes. This would have been extremely difficult given the international situation of the world proletariat, which was still coming to terms with the defeat of the post-First World War revolutionary wave.

The rise of the PCE to become the dominant force on the Republican side is down to three factors. The lack of unity and cohesion on the side of the PSOE which led first one then another PSOE leader to seek a closer alliance with them. This was compounded by the fact that the British and French policy of “non-intervention” in the Spanish war meant that whilst Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy gave material support to Franco, only the USSR (and Mexico as far as it was able) gave arms and sent technical support to the Republic. The power this gave the local PCE over decisions in the Republican Government was enormous. And the final factor in the growth of the PCE was its outright opposition to any idea of revolution. On the international front, Stalin wanted to convince Britain and France that the Spanish Republic was a respectable bourgeois democracy so that they would abandon non-intervention (he did not realise the huge amount of support for Nazism and Fascism within the ruling class in those countries). Inside Spain the PCE came to the aid of the petty bourgeoisie. It even had an organisation in Catalonia for them (GEPCI), so that they could resist any attempts at collectivisation. The PCE daily Mundo Obrero (Workers’ World) justified this in the following terms:

In a capitalist society, the small tradesmen and manufacturers constitute a class on the side of the democratic republic ... it is everybody’s duty to respect the property of these small tradesman and manufacturers...
We therefore strongly urge the members of our party and the militia in general, to demand, and if need be, to enforce respect for these middle class citizens...

Indeed, it is safe to say that the PCE became the best defenders of the small capitalists in Spain and many petty bourgeois deserted their traditional parties (like Companys’ Esquerra) for the PSUC in Catalonia and the PCE elsewhere. As the PSOE was so factionalised, the PCE was able to manoeuvre around it (“we played upon their suicidal antagonisms” later wrote Jesus Hernandez, a CPE Minister in the Largo Caballero Government). First, they had captured the PSOE youth base before the war, then they succeeded in getting the UGT and PSOE in Catalonia to unite in a CPE-led PSUC. By March 1937, they had the power base of 50000 members in Catalonia alone. But the move to finish off those workers’ organisations which still deluded themselves that fighting the fascists also meant preserving the revolution had already begun.

The barricades of May 1937

Since September 1936, the Stalinists had been demanding the dissolution of the Central Anti-fascist Militia Committee and the concentration of power in the hands of Companys and the Catalan Government. The CNT and the POUM tried to argue against this, but, when told that arms from Madrid would not be forthcoming unless the committee was dissolved, they capitulated. Once again, the anti-fascist war took precedence over “the defence of the revolution”. When the CNT leaders had allowed the Generalitat to stay in nominal power in order to fight the anti-fascist war, they consoled their followers that the real power lay in the Central Militia Committee. Now this was gone, their consolation was that the CNT and the POUM were represented in the bourgeois government. Still they maintained the illusion that the revolution existed. Now all that was left was armed militia who controlled security in Barcelona and were still CNT-dominated. Opposed to them were the Asaltos and the Republican guard which were controlled by the comisario general de orden publico, at that time headed by one of Companys’ allies. The next step was the Stalinist campaign against the POUM. The smears that the POUM was “Trotskyist” and the even bigger smear that “Trotskyists” were in league with Hitler and fascists in general were the main instruments of the PSUC campaign. The PSUC demanded in November that Nin, the only POUM minister, be excluded from the cabinet. This provoked a three week long crisis as the CNT at first refused to agree to this. In the end, though the offer of a new cabinet post to the CNT, and the threat once again of a freezing of weapons supplies to Catalonia, led to their further capitulation. In another amazing piece of double-think the CNT were also re-assured by the resignation of the Stalinists as members of the cabinet under the label “PSUC” and the return of the same ministers as representatives of the “UGT”. The CNT now consoled themselves with two thoughts. The first was that the POUM were simply Marxists and therefore their rivalry with the PSUC was simply not of their concern. Never mind the fact that the POUM virtually shared their analysis of the situation in Spain. The second consoling thought was that, as the government was dominated by trades union organisations, it was now a “syndicalist” one!

However, the most significant result of the December crisis was the appointment of the one-armed ex-anarchist, ex-POUMist, Rodriguez Salas (8), who was a PSUC stalwart as comisario general de orden publico. With Salas in a key post in Barcelona, the PSUC now began to campaign for an end to the militias and the formation of a regular army with compulsory military service. The aim was obvious - to disarm the working class who had weapons in Barcelona and complete the restoration of the monopoly of power of the bourgeois state. Under pressure from the central government in Valencia (the no more weapons trick again), and against the opposition of the CNT, the Catalan Government agreed to take the first steps towards forming a regular army in Catalonia, by putting its forces under the control of the defence ministry in Valencia. The CNT now walked out of the Catalan Government provoking a new crisis. On April 7th 1937, the PSUC and UGT proposed a “victory plan” which was nothing less than the total submission of all workers militias and organisations to the bourgeoisie under the slogan “without authority there can be no victory”. The CNT at last belatedly realised that “we have already made too many concessions and believe that the time has come to turn off the tap” (9). May Day was approaching but the idea that the UGT dominated by Stalinists and the CNT anarcho-syndialists could hold a joint demonstration was abandoned. The thousand anarchist militiamen who, worried about political developments in Barcelona, and had abandoned the front in March to set up the “Friends of Durruti”, plastered Barcelona with slogans calling for “all power to the working class”. These were supported by editorials in the POUM’s paper La Batalla.

Bourgeois histories now tell us that there is confusion about what happened next but there is no doubt that the May events were sparked by the Stalinists. Rodriquez Salas, with three truckloads of Asaltos (some 200 men) loyal to the Catalan Government, tried to occupy the Telephone Exchange on the Plaza de Cataluña on May 3rd 1937. This had been occupied by the CNT and the UGT on July 19th 1936, and its occupation was confirmed by the then powerless Generalitat. It was strategically significant post, allowing the unions to monitor all telephone calls in the city) including to Companys, and to the President of the Republic, Manuel Azaña, who had fled to Barcelona. Salas and his crew succeeded in entering the building but were stopped as they tried to reach the upper floors. This provocation led to a general strike throughout the city, workers took to the streets and hundreds of barricades were set up in every working class district. Everyone from Azaña to Abad de Santillan, the FAI leader (10), agrees that “the anarchists were masters of the city” at this point, but as Abad de Santillan also made clear the CNT-FAI leadership did not go on the offensive.

Instantaneously, nearly the whole of Barcelona was in the power of our armed groups. They did not move from their posts, although they could have done so easily and overcome the small centres of resistance.

As to recognising that a struggle for power was going on he maintains the anarchists were not interested in defeating the Stalinists

...this did not interest us, for it would have been an act of folly contrary to our principles of unity and democracy.

Could there be a more blatant statement that there is no halfway house between the class struggle and capitulation to the democratic bourgeoisie in the anti-fascist cause? In a sense the anarchists were caught in a cleft stick as victory in Barcelona would have meant a civil war within the civil war against the Central Government (which still had three anarchist ministers!). The notion that you defeat the fascist (one section of the ruling class) in favour of democracy (another section of the same class) and then you re-start the class war has no logic to start with but history has given fewer more obvious lessons of the folly of such a policy than the Spanish events. The masses were on the streets, the Friends of Durruti called for resistance (in the name of defence of a revolution which had never been consummated - this was their illusion and had been nurtured by both the CNT and POUM since July 19th 1936). POUM called its spontaneous response to the Stalinist provocation and said the choice was revolution or counter-revolution. But, as we demonstrated above, it was a counter-revolution in which the CNT and the POUM and played their parts in preparing. Even now, the CNT looked for compromise and told its militants to remain on the defensive whilst the Stalinists plotted their next move. They had already called for 1500 extra assault guards from Valencia but Largo Caballero prevaricated as he still hoped that a “negotiated solution” could be found. From now on all the Stalinists had to do was fire a few shots from the Hotel Colòn and a day long fusillade of shots would fill the city but

Most of the combatants remained in buildings or behind barricades and lazed away at their enemies opposite. (11)

In other words, there was no attempt to flush the small minority of Stalinists out. And as long as the shooting continued the Stalinists could put pressure on Largo Caballero to send troops. Largo Caballero resisted as long as possible and sent a delegation made up of anarchist and socialist Ministers to Barcelona to negotiate a cease-fire. The anarchists Federica Montseny and Mariano Vázquez brokered the deal as well as getting local CNT committees to agree to allow Popular Front troops to pass through Catalonia without being attacked by local militia.

The sorry consequences of class collaboration

The CNT were now totally trapped by the policy of support for the anti-fascist war and by the afternoon of May 4th they were calling on their supporters to stop fighting

Workers! ...We are not responsible for what is happening. We are attacking no-one. We are only defending ourselves ... Lay down your arms! Remember, we are brothers! ... If we fight amongst ourselves we are doomed to defeat. (12)

In reality, these were not brothers but class enemies that the Barcelona proletariat was faced with, and the idea that “they were doomed to defeat” if they resisted the Stalinists only once again shows that the priority was to fight the anti-fascist war, and not the class war. Many anarchists try to portray the defeat of the May Days as the simple result of “Marxist manipulation”, equating Stalinism with Marxism, but the events also show that many “Marxists” in Barcelona in the POUM and in the Bolshevik-Leninists (i.e. Trotskyists) were much more prepared to resist than the CNT leadership. However even these organisations, as shown above, had fostered illusions in the anti-fascist struggle, and as the Italian Fraction always reminds us was still part of the Popular Front Government which brought about the May massacres.. The only really Marxist and internationalist position was taken up by the Italian Fraction as the document translated here from Bilan demonstrates. The fact was that the feebleness of anarchist theory was fully revealed by the inadequacy of the CNT-FAI both in July 1936, and again in May 1937. In reality, in May 1937 there was little hope of overturning what had already been decided in July 1936. The CNT-FAI was wedded to anti-fascism and the Popular Front and could not escape its consequences. When the Friends of Durruti called for a revolutionary junta on May 6th the CNT-FAI leaders denounced them as agents provocateurs and on May 7th the appeal went out, “Comrades, return to work”. That evening the assault guards arrived from Valencia and the Stalinist terror was about to be visited on Catalonia.

Indeed it had already begun. The Bilan text which follows mentions Camillo Berneri. Berneri was an Italian anarchist who edited a paper Guerra di Classe (Class War) which criticised both the CNT participation in the Popular Front and the Comintern’s increasingly reactionary influence in Spain. On the night of 5th-6th May members of the PSUC took him away along with his co-worker Francisco Barbieri. Their bodies were found a day or so later riddled with machine gun bullets. The same fate was to befall Andre Nin and other POUM leaders, though in Nin’s case, he was “disappeared” and his body never found, presumably because he has been badly tortured to make him confess to being “a fascist spy”, so that a Spanish version of the show trials could be held. The Stalinists always maintained that his disappearance was a mystery.

Overall the incredible had happened. The CNT was defeated in Catalonia and the Stalinists were now on the rampage.

In succeeding weeks, the story of Catalonia was one of mass arrests, of detentions in clandestine gaols, of tortures, kidnappings and assassinations, as well as the destruction of the agricultural and urban collectives.

But, even now, the CNT and FAI leadership only complained “barbarous repression” but still called for “discipline and a sense of responsibility” from their followers! (13) In other words they wanted nothing to be done which might rock the Popular Front. It was now, in any case, too late, as what the Italian Fraction had predicted in August 1936 had come to pass. The capitalist state had never been smashed and therefore there was no real revolution to defend. The village committees which had carried out social experiments, with varying degrees of success, were now smashed by the arrival of troops in every area to restore property rights. All the consequences of the original failure to smash the capitalist state in July 1936 were now being visited on the workers of Catalonia. Even George Orwell who had been so impressed by the outwardly proletarian character of Barcelona at the end of 1936 now understood that the bourgeois can adopt proletarian forms.

I did not realise that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being. (14)

What he did not understand was that the Stalinists were part of the world imperialist order and that they too stood for property rights wherever it was useful for the defence of the Soviet Union. Spain helped to open the eyes of many to the fact that the Soviet Union was now part of the world imperialist order, something that was to be confirmed by the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939. To the comrades of the Italian Fraction it also seemed have completed the task of theoretical clarification which they had set themselves. At the end of the article which follows they called for unity of all the fractions in an International Bureau to prepare for the formation of a new world proletarian party. They had, however, confused their own increasing clarity about where they stood in relation to the world working class with the willingness and material possibility of the world working class resisting the coming imperialist war. This failure was to lead to paralysis and a collapse of the Fraction in the fact of the war. It was in Italy towards the end of the Second World War that other comrades of the Fraction, led by Onorato Damen and Luciano Stefanini amongst others, were to raise the banner which they had temporarily dropped. It is that same banner that today’s International Bureau keeps alive today.

(1) Some of the earlier texts on Spain from Bilan were published in translation in 1976 by the International Communist Current. These can be found on their website and include “Against the Imperialist Front and the Massacre of the Spanish Workers” (from Bilan 34, August-September 1936) which demonstrates the same clarity at the start of the war as the Italian fraction held a the time of the May 1937 events.

(2) For more on the history of the Italian Left in English, see our pamphlet on the Platform of the Committee of Intesa (still available from the group address, £2.50 inc. p&p).

(3) Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (Pelican ed., 1968), p194.

(4) Or Holy Alliance. The term originally comes from the French situation in 1914 when the French Socialist Party and the unions called off the class war in favour of support for the imperialist war.

(5) Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, p107.

(6) From The War in Spain from the internal bulletin of the Italian Fraction. Originally published in English in Revolutionary Perspectives 5 (first series) it has been out of print for some time. We plan to make it available on our website shortly.

(7) See our review of this film in Revolutionary Perspectives 1 (current series). There are handful left at £2.50 (inc. p&p), from the group address.

(8) He was actually a former member of the larger of the two organisations, the Workers and Peasants Bloc of Joaquin Maurin which had joined to form the POUM in 1934. Maurin was murdered by Franco’s men. Ironically, Rodriguez Salas had lost his arm taking part in an anarchist bank robbery in Tarragona in 1917.

(9) Quoted in B. Bolloten, The Spanish Revolution (Chapel Hill NC 1979), p396.

(10) The FAI were the Iberian Anarchist Federation, the political organisation which dominated Spanish anarchism. The CNT (National Confederation of Labour) was the syndicalist wing of this movement (which in many sources is referred to as the CNT-FAI).

(11) Bolloten, p408.

(12) Loc. cit.

(13) Bolloten, p455.

(14) Homage to Catalonia, Penguin, 1966, p9.

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