CWI Summer School: The Spanish Revolution and the lessons for today

A rally was held during the CWI summer school to mark the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of civil war in Spain and to commemorate the heroic Spanish revolution.

Victoria Lara, of Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Spain) was the first of three speakers. She began by explaining the importance of drawing the correct lessons from the Spanish Revolution. In reality, understanding about this revolution is not good on the Left. It is often not analysed in terms of revolution and counter-revolution but in terms of simply a military struggle against fascism, as if this could be separated from the social questions, mobilising millions to participate in the struggle. Vicky made the point that our task is to bring this analysis to the new generations of young people looking at socialist ideas and looking to fight capitalism at this time, like the ‘Indignados’ currently seeking a ‘new Spanish Revolution’.

Vicky gave a picture of the tremendous courage and instincts of the working class, illustrated throughout the Spanish Revolution. For example, the workers in Catalonia were able to win over the rank and file soldiers to their side by exposing the lies of their generals who were making them shoot their class brothers and sisters. There was enormous working class power at local level and the anarchists could have easily taken power in Barcelona and Catalonia, but the leadership failed to take this step at the decisive moment.

Quite tragically, the leaders of the then very strong mass anarchist movement supported and took part in the Popular Front government at local and national level, claiming this was necessary to fight fascism. In fact, the leadership or ‘mis-leadership’ of the revolution, in collaborating with the capitalists, is the key reason for the military defeat of the revolution.

Hence, analysing the Spanish Revolution today is vital. The working class could have taken power leading to victory and inherently threatening the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. Instead, fascism was victorious. Vicky described how today the movement in which she is a participant – ‘M15’, named after the date the mobilisation began – is seen by many as a movement to change the whole of society and therefore has echoes of this period in it.


For the ‘Indignados’, the debate around monarchy versus republic is not enough. One of the chants of the movement correctly points out that, "There is no democracy if the markets rule!". In other words, you have to get rid of capitalism. The ‘M15’ movement illustrates the deep anger shown against the capitalist system and its crisis.

Unemployment is over 20 per cent in Spain, youth unemployment is over 40 per cent. These factors, as well as the rise in pension age and the cutting back on working conditions and health care have radicalised workers and young people in Spain. The now famous ‘M15’ movement arose in the context of huge anger at union leaders selling out collective bargaining rights as well as the pension struggle issue.

‘Indignados’ always talk about making a revolution and changing the situation completely – ‘We have no jobs, no houses, no pensions and no fear’ is a key slogan of the movement. The ‘M15’ movement has activated a whole new layer of workers and youth, new to political activity. The movement lacks clear direction at this stage and a socialist content that can provide a real alternative and ‘real democracy’, but it is clearly anti-capitalist and is illustrative of the ingenuity of the youth and workers overcoming the rotten role of conservative trade union leaders.

Vicky explained how this movement has many pre-revolutionary traits but that it is not yet a revolutionary movement. It could mobilise more than 1.4 million workers and young people in the June demos but there is still not a total mass movement. It has extended to towns, but it is not yet reaching its full potential, as it is not connected to the workplaces; there are no assemblies in the workplaces yet.

Structures are beginning to be created, but they are not clear enough and are not linked at regional or national level yet, just at city level. But these could be the first steps towards the building of a real alternative for the workers and youth in the 21st century, in the spirit of the heroic 20th century Spanish Revolution. The movement’s tasks are to build a mass workers’ party with a clear programme of socialist change to defeat capitalism.

Stalinism and the Spanish Revolution

Sergei from the CWI in Russia was next to speak at the rally. He movingly explained how the uprising in Spain was hugely inspiring for workers in the Soviet Union. In particular, there was huge enthusiasm amongst the Soviet youth. Huge waves of letters were sent by young people asking the government to send them to fight on the side of the revolution. Of course, the treacherous leaders of the Stalinist bureaucracy had a completely different attitude to the revolution.

The main reason for this is that after the Stalinist bureaucracy had managed to strangle party and workers’ democracy in Russia, they saw they saw any revolutionary movement that could create a new workers’ state as a threat to their bureaucratic position.

Sergei explained that the reason why the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union felt so threatened was because socialist equality and workers’ democracy would have prevailed if the Spanish Revolution had won, the very things the Soviet bureaucracy had crushed in the USSR itself. A victory for the socialist revolution in Spain would have given a new impetus to the Left Opposition in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, making it difficult for the bureaucracy to maintain control. For these reasons, the Stalinists in reality sabotaged the wishes of Spanish workers and the youth in the Soviet Union and elsewhere for the revolution to be carried through.

Stalin sent arms and weapons to the revolution, on condition that he had the right to deal with his opponents in Spain. As a result of these policies, Andres Nin, the leader of the POUM was murdered. To this day it is not known how many were killed in the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Spain. This policy was an extension of the Stalinist policy within the Soviet Union of annihilation of all political opponents in a one-sided civil war to wipe out all those with links to the 1917 revolution..

Two stages

The fear of a new revolution in Spain led the bureaucracy to argue that the main task was to defeat Franco, and then later they could talk about making a workers’ revolution. This ‘two-stage’ theory, Trotsky explained, was a total falsehood that threatens, even in the post-Stalinist period today, the bringing about of socialist change.

Sergei explained that in 1938, when the Soviet bureaucracy tried to reach a deal with the British and French governments, it gave the impression that it would be neutral in terms of Spain and even withdrew the International Brigade, one of the most effective in Spain. After the collapse of deal-making with British and French imperialism, Stalin withdrew all military personnel and advisers from Spain in preparation for his later pact with Hitler.

There were, however, many genuine fighters in Spain from the Soviet Union, but the benefit they gave to the Spanish Revolution was not enough to undo the terrible damage done by the pernicious Stalinist bureaucracy. Comrade Sergei described how he saw the tragedy of the Spanish Revolution as the epilogue to the final annihilation of the Bolshevik Party in the Purge Trials and a prologue to the horror visited upon the working class during the Second World War.

Sergei concluded by stating that although the collapse of Stalinism was a tragedy in disorientating the working class movement, it did mean that the criminality of Stalinism could be fully exposed. Its wrong ideas have been severely weakened, opening the way to build the forces of genuine Marxism and socialism in the quest to change the world. 

Real history

The final speaker in the rally was Peter Taaffe from the International Secretariat of the CWI. He began his remarks by pointing out that history is important for Marxists as it allows us to illuminate the tasks we face today. That is why Marx assiduously studied the processes of the French Revolution, just as Engels, Luxemburg and Lenin also did. The capitalists have always down-plaid revolutions, even the ones that laid the basis for their society. Peter pointed out that the ruling elite particularly cover up and attack the role of the masses in revolutions.

Spain 75 years ago saw one of the grandest revolutions in history. The masses, who had been kept in the dirt by Spanish capitalism, stepped onto the stage of history and tried to determine their own fate.

To illustrate the power of this event on a contemporary writer, Peter quoted Hemingway on the Spanish Revolution: “It was a feeling of duty to all the oppressed of the world, as the feeling you had when you first heard Bach… It gave you something you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt absolute brotherhood…”. But it was more than that. As it came after the triumph of Mussolini and Hitler, the world working class saw it as an opportunity to stop the tide of Fascism. They could have done just that – with a different leadership. Trotsky said that ten revolutions could have been carried through in Spain if the working class had the right leadership.

Peter spent time explaining the dangers of the Popular Front – which was a key factor in the defeat of the Spanish Revolution. It would be a big mistake, he said, to think that the issue will not come up again and again in the workers’ movement. The argument for popular fronts is that the way to win broader support in society, especially the middle class, is to form alliances with more "progressive" political representatives of the capitalists – a bloc with some of the exploiters. In reality, the middle class can be won by the forces of the working class on the basis of a clear alternative to the rule of big business. It is necessary to win the middle class, particularly in countries with a large rural population, but also today in advanced capitalist countries. When the workers’ movement acts decisively it does draw the middle class around its banner, Peter explained.

The reality is that Spanish workers themselves had no trust in any element of the bourgeoisie. The Popular Front government proved vacillating and incapable. It was workers themselves that implemented steps forward, such as a shorter working week. Workers understood that reaction was preparing to smash the revolution and were prepared to fight this and take power. Contrast this with the Popular Front Government that really just played a deadly game of musical chairs with the generals.

The workers’ papers tried to warn about a coming coup but the news was censored by the government. When Franco declared his take-over, the workers mobilised and 100,000 demanded arms in Madrid, for example. The workers’ leaders called for calm, but the reality was that the working class was being slaughtered. In Seville, fascist officers went door to door executing shop stewards as a warning to the working class.

Peter noted that the situation was saved by the immortal Barcelona workers. The spirit of improvisation and action deep in the heart of the Barcelona working class meant they did not listen to their leaders. They marched with batons and rifles on the barracks. Many were killed but they crushed the fascist uprising in Barcelona in just 24 hours. 

Then, led by Durruti, a left wing anarchist leader, they went onto the offensive, and, within 48 hours, Barcelona was in the hands of the workers, then the rest of Catalonia, and they began the march to the gates of Madrid. Peter pointed out that armed workers’ committees were the real power in these regions at this stage, with a trade union card replacing a passport. Socialist measures were pushed through by the workers, with factories taken into the hands of the working class.

The working class took four fifths of Spain. A situation of dual power existed. Unfortunately however, as Peter explained, the workers’ committees were not functioning along the lines of soviets in the Russian Revolution, as these committees were marginally under the banners of parties and trade unions, not under democratic control of workers through elected workers’ representatives, subject to recall. But power was in the hands of the working class. The capitalist state was smashed and capitalists fled. This meant that the bourgeois put their hopes in the fascists to save their system.

The struggle over where the revolution would go came to a head around the battle for the Barcelona telephone exchange in May 1937. This was a symbol of dual power in Spain at that time. Barricades were erected throughout Barcelona against the attack. At this decisive moment the POUM, a left party formed by former Trotskyists and others, had entered a bourgeois government – the real effects of this was to disorientate the working class and, in practice, accept the continuation of capitalism. Similarly, because anarchists do not recognise the state, they did not differentiate between a workers’ and a bourgeois state. The POUM and the anarchists, if they had provided a different leadership, could have led the Revolution to victory, but their actions resulted in the tragic opposite.

Was the POUM too small to lead the Revolution to victory? Peter explained how the Bolsheviks were just 24,000 strong in February, 1917 and then led the taking of power in October. The POUM had gone, in six weeks in 1936, from 1,000 to 30,000 members, reaching over 70,000 by the end of 1936. The immortal working class of Spain did not have the leadership matching its heroism and willingness to fight and paid a terrible price – namely the death of one million workers and 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship. 

Lessons for today

Peter drew the rally’s attention to the horrors of the recent far-right massacre in Norway. He contended that in this era, fascism will not get the mass base it had in the past, but that it can play a very dangerous role of an auxiliary to reaction. There is no immediate danger of a fascist coup in this period. But the ultimate defeat and ending of this horrible scourge of fascism depends on ensuring a socialist victory for the dramatic class struggle that we are now entering.

The CWI in this era, Peter stressed, will have many opportunities to develop a mass base. Given the depth of the capitalist crisis, there can be events which concentrate 20 years into one or two months. In this context we must remember that there has only been one victory of a workers’ revolution in history – because of the far-sighted, sensitive and determined leadership of a mass revolutionary party, namely the Bolsheviks.

Peter concluded the rally by making the powerful observation that the best way to celebrate the Spanish working class, is to pledge ourselves to learn the lessons of the Spanish revolution so that this time round the full power of the working class can be harnessed to usher in a new socialist era.

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.