The Spanish Revolution, intro by Russell Blackwell

Introduction by Russell Blackwell to the Greenwood reprint of The Spanish Revolution Volumes 1-2, 1936-1937. The Spanish Revolution was was the English Language newspaper of the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista–P.O.U.M.).


by Russell Blackwell

The workers of Spain were the first in Europe to fight back seriously against the advance of fascism. Their struggle, with its revolutionary overtones, aroused the admiration of radicals and liberals of all countries. Large numbers of refugees from Italy, Germany, Greece and elsewhere, who had been living precariously as exiles in France, Belgium and other countries, flocked to Spain to participate in the fight for freedom. Thousands of anti-Fascists of every radical tendency in the Western world gravitated to the scene of revolutionary action.

Upon their arrival in Spain, most of these people associated themselves with the Spanish organization with which they felt the closest identification. Anarchists from many countries came to the support of the embattled Spanish Libertarian movement. Many independent Marxists and other unaffiliated radicals joined the militias of the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (P.O.U.M.). The Communist parties throughout Europe and the Americas recruited thousands of volunteers, not all of them Stalinists, for service in their International Brigades.

The inability of the Republic in its five years of existence to really solve any of the basic social problems of the country had caused the Spanish workers to become disillusioned with democratic processes. The remains of feudalism were still considerable in Spain, and the army and the Church were still powerful political forces. Everything, it seemed, still remained to be done to bring Spain fully into the twentieth century. The bulk of the working class was organized in unions of Anarcho-Syndicalist and Socialist orientation, and the conditions for a complete social transformation existed.

Only positive revolutionary objectives can account for the militancy of the workers in opposing the military-Fascist-clerical uprising. Although the Left had won a clear victory at the polls in February, 1936, republican politicians abdicated the struggle against the army rebellion when it broke out and in most cases refused to arm the workers against their own army. Hence, in those areas where the workers had been able to defeat the military, revolutionary committees of a united-front character were established for administration and defense. In most of Spain, the republican government had in effect ceased to exist and had been replaced by a network of revolutionary committees. The various liberal capitalist parties had in the main resigned themselves to playing a subordinate role, accepting the inevitability of a social revolution.

Against this background it was at first only the Communist Party and its satellite in Catalonia-the Unified Socialist Party (P.S.U.C.)-which declared that this was not a social revolution but simply a war of democracy against fascism. The Stalinists opposed all of the revolutionary steps that were taken by the workers and their mass organizations, attempting to direct the struggle into purely military and parliamentary channels. This was the line of Stalin’s Third International in the interests of the then current foreign policy of the Soviet Union, a policy that was primarily interested in seeking alliances with the Western democracies against the rising threat of Hitlerism. Russian military aid was the lever that enabled Stalinism to become a major influence in spite of its original numerical weakness. Political blackmail was used shamelessly to impose the Stalinist will on the other anti-Fascist parties and organizations.

The Spanish Socialist Workers Party and its trade union counterpart, the General Union of Workers (U.G.T.), were torn by internal dissension during the whole revolutionary and civil war period. The Stalinists played the various Socialist factions against each other. At each juncture they were able to influence one or more tendencies against the others. In the early stages they attempted to use Largo Caballero, whose group had the largest mass following. Eventually they wound up associated with the extreme right wing and Juan Negrin.

In size, the largest revolutionary force was the Libertarian movement: the National Confederation of Labor (C.N.T.) and the Iberian Anarchist Federation (F.A.I.). There was division and dissension in this movement, too. The P.O.U.M., as a minority party with revolutionary perspectives, identified most closely with the Anarchists, holding with them the position that the social revolution and the war against Franco were inseparable.

The P.O.U.M. was a new party that had been established in October, 1935, only a few months before Franco’s uprising, through the fusion of the Spanish Communist Left led by Andres Min, who had broken with Leon Trotsky some years before, and the workers and peasants bloc led by Joaquin Maurin. While ideologically Marxist, the P.O.U.M. included many workers of a revolutionary syndicalist background and was in the main labor-oriented rather than politically doctrinaire. As the only independent Marxist movement in Spain, the P.O.U.M. was the magnet that drew from abroad the independent Marxist elements of a dozen or more international splinter movements.

Spanish Revolution was edited for the P.O.U.M. by Charles Orr, of the Revolutionary Policy Committee of the Socialist Party of the U.S., with the very able assistance of his wife, Lois. They had been touring in Europe in the summer of 1936 and went to Barcelona shortly after the outbreak of the revolution to do their part for a cause to which they felt deeply committed. Mary Brea of Australia and other English-speaking comrades contributed on occasion. Publication continued until it was interrupted by the suppression of the P.O.U.M. The Orrs were arrested by the Russian GPU at the same time as the P.O.U.M. leadership. This was featured in a Matthews dispatch to the New York Times as a “Fascist Nest Uncovered in Barcelona.” Relatives learned of the Orrs’ arrest, and they were released, thanks mainly to the intervention of Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky and to the U.S. State Department. The Orrs were permitted to leave Spain, after spending ten days in a private prison operated by the Russians in Barcelona.

Spanish Revolution faithfully reported events during its period of publication from the point of view of the P.O.U.M. Its first issue appeared on October 21, 1936, at a time when the revolutionary process was already beginning to decline. Its final issues dealt with the historic May Days of 1937 and the events immediately following, which led to the Stalinist takeover.

In the Moscow Pravda of December 16, 1936, the Russian Stalinists had boldly announced:

“As for Catalonia-the purging of the Trotskyists and Anarcho-Syndicalists has already begun; and it will be conducted with the same energy with which it has been conducted in the U.S.S.R.”

Stalin knew all too well which forces stood in the way of his policies in Spain. The Anarcho-Syndicalists were a powerful movement with a following greater than any other single sector. Their elimination would not be an easy matter. A logical step was first to compromise the P.O.U.M. (which the Stalinists insisted on referring to as Trotskyist), and then to destroy it physically. But this was not to be an overnight matter. With upwards of 10,000 members, the P.O.U.M. had its own armed militias at the front. It included many militants whose probity was well established and recognized by their political competitors in the Socialist, Libertarian and Republican camps. Its leaders were individually better known and of greater intellectual and working-class stature than were the top people of Spanish Stalinism.

The elimination of Spain’s revolutionists could only be accomplished along with the erosion of the conquests of the revolution itself. The entrance of the Anarchists and the P.O.U.M. into the organs of the government and the weakening or suppression of the revolutionary committees played a large part in this erosion. The P.O.U.M. could only operate in the shadow of the C.N.T., and it was destined to go under as soon as the Anarcho-Syndicalist movement lost its power to the capitalist government.

It should be noted that there was considerable-though largely passive-resistance among the members and leaders of the Spanish Communist Party to the aggressive policy of repression imposed by Moscow’s agents in Spain. The foreign Stalinists insisted on controlling and directing affairs, and they held virtual veto power-backed up by the GPU-over all major policy decisions. The Russians imposed themselves on their Spanish comrades in a manner less ruthless only in degree from that used against their declared enemies. Much of this has been documented in Jesus Hernandez, Yo Fui un Ministro de Stalin (Mexico City, 1953).

The armed barricade struggles of May 3-7, 1937, were the culmination of a series of Stalinist political maneuvers and GPU terrorist actions and provocations directed at the revolutionary elements of the Libertarians and the Poumists. The private Cheka prisons of the GPU were filled with persons known or thought to be opposed to Stalinist policies. A number of key people in the Anarchist organizations were murdered. In the central region alone eighty Anarchists were assassinated between January and May. Press censorship was greatly increased, and a number of Anarcho-Syndicalist papers were suspended. During the May “uprising,” the revolutionary forces had effective control of all Catalonia and could easily have snuffed out the small centers of Stalinist and governmental resistance, establishing their own power. That this was not done sealed the fate of the revolution, because it could not have been possible at a later time.

Following the events of early May, the Stalinists were able to provoke a political crisis which brought down the national government of Francisco Largo Caballero, general secretary of the U.G.T. He was replaced as Prime Minister by Dr. Juan Negrin, and as Minister of War by Indalecio Prieto. Both men were right-wing Socialists. The C.N.T. refused to participate in the counterrevolutionary government of Negrin, which represented a victory not only for the Stalinists but also for the capitalist elements of the country. It raised the stock of the Republic among the conservative elements in the Western democracies, since the revolution would ultimately have expropriated most, if not all, of their investments. On the other hand, the political move to the right in Spain had the effect of discouraging radicalism in the Western countries.

Having in effect eliminated the P.O.U.M. as an active political movement and overthrown the government of Largo Caballero, the Stalinists now moved to smash the left Socialists as a political and social force. A split in the U.G.T. was effected by a bloc of Stalinists and right Socialists against the left Socialists. This was accompanied by an intense campaign of vilification and slander against Largo Caballero, even though it was claimed that he was no longer an important leader of the proletariat. He was blamed for the alleged “treason of the trotskyists” because he “had permitted all types of provocateurs, spies and agents of the Gestapo, masquerading in the P.O.U.M., to carry out tranquilly their work of demoralization and provocation.” He was also blamed for the military blunders and defeats that took place during his period in power.

With the left Socialists and Anarchists out of the government, the last remnants of the workers’ militias were eliminated and central control of the army was perfected. The Libertarian-dominated Defense Council of Aragon was overthrown by force of arms, and the magnificent Aragonese collectives were dissolved. The autonomous character of Catalonia was terminated. Government control of industry was strengthened at the expense of worker control. All of these factors were favorable to the Stalinists, who found in Dr. Negrin a willing tool of their policies. The “Government of Victory,” as his regime with its counterrevolutionary and increasingly dictatorial policies was called, was in fact paving the way for Franco’s victory by constant erosion of the workers’ conquests, which was destroying the revolutionary spirit of the people.

A period of terror developed against all of the revolutionary elements. Over 1,000 P.O.U.M. members and several dozen foreigners associated with it were seized, most of them by the private police of the Communist Party and the GPU. Hundreds of Anarchists and numerous left Socialists were arrested, and many of these disappeared without a trace. On the demand of the Communist Party, the more prominent leaders of the P.O.U.M. were arrested on June 16, 1937.

It was clearly the intention of international Stalinism, through its agents operating in Spain, to make the trial of the P.O.U.M. leadership a big and dramatic show trial much like those that had just been held in Moscow. But conditions in Spain did not favor this. In spite of their strength in the army and the fact that Negrin was under their thumb, and in spite of their influence in the various police agencies and their all-around political astuteness, the Stalinists had not yet succeeded in turning Spain into a totalitarian society completely under their control. They had their private prisons, one of which held Andres Nin, who was murdered after weeks of torture failed to break him down. But the Stalinists did not control the Spanish courts, which were a carry-over from the democratic Republic, and for their own purposes, the Stalinists paid lip service to the forms of Spanish judicial procedure.

After many months of postponements, the trial of the P.O.U.M. leadership was finally held in Barcelona from October 11 to October 22, 1938, and even then matters did not go entirely as the Stalinists would have liked. The accused were charged with espionage and high treason (in the interests of the Gestapo and Franco), illegal traffic in arms and money, and armed rebellion for the purpose of establishing a different social order. Julian Gorkin, Juan Andrade, Enrique Gironella and Pedro Bonet were each sentenced to fifteen years; Jordi Arquer to eleven years; Daniel Rebull and Jose Escuder were acquitted. But the court was compelled to admit that all of the accused had “a well known and firmly established anti-Fascist record.” On the subject of espionage and the much-touted plans of vital defense works that were supposedly discovered in the possession of the accused, a communication from the National Defense Ministry was read which stated that the plans submitted as evidence had no military value whatever. They turned out to be photographs used in aviation courses given by the government, and hence accessible to many persons, including the police. In his summary, the defense attorney stated:

“This trial has been marked by a bitter fight between the Presiding Justice and the police from whom he has repeatedly requested the sources of the evidence on which the accusations are based without ever obtaining a satisfactory answer. In spite of the repeated requests of the Judge the police never turned over to him the foreigners of the P.O.U.M. said to be agents of the Gestapo. The Judge insisted time and time again on seeing these foreigners and obtaining their signed confessions but was only able to get a list of prisoners which is in the files of the trial. There is only one foreigner on this list … who has already been released.”

Actually, over fifty foreign P.O.U.M. sympathizers accused of espionage had been arrested during the summer of 1937, most of whom were subsequently released. (Among those who were not, but who were murdered by the GPU, were Kurt Landau, the Austrian Marxist; Bob Smillie, a member of the British Independent Labor Party youth movement who had served in the P.O.U.M. militia; Hans Freund-Moulin, a Swiss Trotskyist; Erwin Wolf, a Czech who had at one time been secretary to Trotsky; and Walter Schwarz, a German political refugee and member of the German KPO who had served as political commissar in the P.O.U.M. militia.)

In sentencing the defendants for the sole crime of being proletarian revolutionists, the nonrevolutionary character of the Spanish republican government was officially proclaimed, as though this were necessary in view of its overt political and social policies! Demoralization and pessimism in the country and in the army increased in proportion to the increasing Stalinist influence, with the general erosion of political liberties, and the long succession of military defeats. But this is not the place for a detailed discussion of these matters.

— Russell Blackwell

New York, 1968

Short bio of Russell Blackwell

One Response to “The Spanish Revolution, intro by Russell Blackwell”

  1. Hi! I could have sworn I’ve been to your blog before but after browsing through many of the articles I realized it’s new
    to me. Nonetheless, I’m certainly pleased I discovered
    it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back frequently!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: