Spanish Civil War - The Counter Revolution - Chapter 3

The behaviour of the Spanish Communist Party and the United Socialist Party of a Catalonia (PSUC) had more to do with what was in the best interests of Stalin than what was in the best interests of the Spanish working class. They went out of their way to deny that a revolution had taken place. Then they did all they could to repress this revolution they pretended had not happened. As far as they were concerned the Civil War was only about restoring democracy to Spain. To see why they took this attitude we have to look outside Spain.


Stalin believed that above all else "socialism" in the USSR had to be defended. The interests of the European (and indeed the world) working class had to take second place to the strategic interests of the ruling bureaucracy in Russia. And they felt very threatened in the 1930s. Hitler had come to power in 1933 and despite the fact that Stalin was seeking no quarrel with Germany (three months after the nazi take-over Stalin had signed an extension to the 1926 German-Soviet Pact) relations between the two countries soon cooled.

Stalin's fear was that the British and French would do a deal with Hitler and thus leave Russia open to attack. He believed they would be content to sit back and watch Germany and Russia slog it out. When both had exhausted themselves Britain and France would move in as masters of Europe.

Because of this Stalin signed a Mutual Assistance Pact with France in 1935. There was no commitment to mutual military assistance in this. For the French it was a way of removing any remaining links between Germany and Russia while at the same time getting the French Communist Party to drop its opposition to their government's defence programme.

So to prevent the British and French settling their differences with Hitler at the expense of the Soviets, in order to guarantee that the Franco-Soviet Pact would not fall by the wayside and in order to conclude similar pacts with the governments of other countries, notably Britain, it was essential that governments hostile to German aims in Eastern Europe should be brought to power. It was to this end that the Popular Front line was adopted at the 7th World Congress of the Comintern in August 1935. This body, also known as the Third International, collected together all the Communist Parties under Russian leadership.

Popular Fronts

The immediate aim of this policy was to bring the middle classes and sections of the bosses into a wide anti-fascist peoples front. To do this Communist Parties were to play down revolutionary politics. This was to be a struggle to preserve bourgeois democracy; and to attract middle class republican and liberal parties extreme positions were never adopted.

The Popular Front policy was quite successful. Early in 1936 Popular Front governments were elected in France and Spain. The programmes of these governments were very moderate. In Spain a socialist proposal that the land be nationalised was dropped because of republican opposition. There the Popular Front consisted of the Republican Party, the Republican Union, the Socialist Party, the POUM, the Syndicalist Party, Basque and Catalan nationalists (who saw their autonomy under threat from the right) and of course the Communist Party.

When the Civil War broke out Stalin's instructions were clear. All of the Communists' efforts were to be directed to one end - winning the support of Britain and France and persuading them to drop their neutrality. A non-intervention agreement had been signed in August 1936 with the hope of preventing the extension of the conflict. Stalin believed that if Britain and France were to drop this policy the Civil War could ultimately develop into a much larger conflict (Germany and Italy were already giving military aid to the fascists). This conflict, from which Russia would remain aloof would bring the warring parties to the point of mutual exhaustion and the Russian bosses would then emerge as the new masters of Europe. Thus the revolutionary aspects of the Civil War were to be denied and, the struggle was to be portrayed (and was to become), a struggle that- went no further than basic democratic demands. Initially the Stalinists had felt a need to talk of making a revolution after the fascists were defeated. Even this empty talk soon stopped.

Of course the Stalinist (and Leninist) Conception of socialism, is quite different from that of the anarchists. It is central to anarchism that the masses take control and run society through a system of councils. For the Stalinists socialism entails nationalising everything and turning over the running of society to the State, which will be dominated by the Party. Control passes into the hands of professionals, technicians and bureaucrats who begin to develop their own class interests. Even if the Stalinists had decided to fight for 'socialism' they would still have had to undermine the anarchists.

This policy of wooing the British and French ruling classes was from the beginning doomed to failure - not only because of their military unpreparedness but because of their belief that if they became involved at this stage in a war with Hitler, both they and the Nazis would be weakened and thus the position of Russia would be enhanced. At all times right up to the outbreak of W.W.II the British sought to come to terms with Hitler which would leave him free to attack Russia in the East.


The activities of the Navy, which had remained loyal to the Republic, were severely curtailed so as not to upset Anglo-French interests in the Straight of Gibraltar. The navy had been very successful in harassing Franco's base in Morocco but their activities were halted to keep the two foreign powers happy. In line with this the Republican government refused to give Morocco its independence and thus deprive Franco of his base - To do this would have upset British and French colonial interests in North Africa. The example of Spanish Morocco could have given other subject nations ideas. Indeed at one stage the government offered to give Britain and France interests in Spanish Morocco in exchange for their intervention.

The revolution that had broken out was of supreme embarrassment to the Communists. Whatever chance they had of winning over Britain and France was lessened by the fact that a social revolution had started. There was no way the British and French governments would intervene on the side of revolutionaries. Thus the revolution was to be hidden and eventually suppressed. The power of the collectives and militias was to be smashed.

At the outbreak of the Civil War there were 40,000 members of the Spanish Communist Party. The question naturally arises as to how such a small organisation could so decisively influence the course of events and in time become the dominant group in the Popular Front camp.

In building their Party the Communists placed a lot of emphasis on Catalonia as this was the heartland of the revolution. The collectivisation movement seriously upset the middle classes. Small businesses were closed and everywhere 'middle-men' found their role abolished as the workers committees took over distribution. The middle classes would have turned to their traditional parties but viewed them as incapable of stemming the collectivisation movement. The Communist Party seemed the only party serious about protecting their property or getting it back from the workers. One former Communist commented "In Murcia and elsewhere I saw that our placards and leaflets appealed for shopkeepers' membership with the promise of absolute support for private property".

Leaps and Bounds

Membership of the Communist Party grew in leaps and bounds. Within a few months of the outbreak of the war 76,700 peasant proprietors and tenant farmers along with 15,485 members of the urban middle classes had joined up. Its influence among these layers went far beyond these figures as thousands of members of the intermediate classes, without actually joining the Party, placed themselves under its wing. As a means of protecting the interests of the urban middle classes in Catalonia the Communists organised 18,000 tradesmen, handicraftmen and small manufacturers into an organisation called the C.E.P.C.I Solidaridad Obrero (Workers Solidarity) the paper of the CNT commented that some of those in this body were "intransigent employers, ferociously anti- labour". By March 1937 the Communist Party had 250,000 members.

Other measures were also taken to extend its influence - Only four days after the military uprising, the Communists merged with the Catalan Socialists to form the PSUC. The local UGT came under PSUC dominion. Leading members of both the Socialist Party and the UGT in other areas defected to the Communists, some secretly. Many members of the Socialist Party could see little difference between their line and that of the Communists winning the war came before the revolution, conciliatory attitudes towards foreign powers, etc. - But because the Communists had the stronger Party apparatus (reinforced as it was by Moscow) it was able to recruit at the expense of the Socialists. Many joined because of its "proselytising zeal, immensely skillful propaganda, its vigour, its organising capacity and the prestige it derived from Soviet arms".

The Communists gained control of the JSU (United Socialist Youth). This grouping resulted from a merger of the Communists and Socialist youth organisations. It had 50,000 members and was formed shortly before the war began. Most of the leading members of the Socialist Youth defected to the Communists with the merger and thus ensured Communist control of the new organisation.

It would be wrong to suggest that the counter- revolution that came was only as a result of the line and activities of the Communists. The Republicans and Socialists agreed with them. The Republicans, who lacked any real base among the masses, retired to the background and ceded to the Communists the delicate job of opposing the social revolution and defending the middle classes. Even Largo Caballero, who became Prime Minister in August, the one time left wing Socialist and leader of the UGT, declared on forming the government that it was "necessary to sacrifice revolutionary language to win the friendship of the democratic powers" and the "Spanish government is not fighting for socialism but for democracy and constitutional rule". Although Caballero did not go all the way with the Communists there were many in his party, even his closest allies, who worked for the Communist line against the social revolution.

It must also be stated that the participation of members of the CNT in the government helped the growing counter-revolution. They entered the Catalan government in September (it must be remembered that Catalonia was semi- autonomous) and the national government in November 1936. This will be dealt with in more detail in the final chapter, suffice to say their participation lent the government a certain credibility with the masses. The key element in proving to the world that the fight in Spain was simply to restore democracy, to rebuild the shattered state machine and return to the government the authority and power that was in the hands of the armed workers. CNT participation served to put a check on the masses and make them believe they had a stake in the government and should defend it.

Russian Arms

The point about the Communist Party is that they directed the counter-revolution. They called the shots. They were the only people who were clear about the 'necessity' for the counter-revolution and had the determination to carry it through. Their ability to do this was derived from the prestige that came with the fact that Russia was the only country supplying major quantities of arms to the Republic. (Mexico was the only other country to help, supplying a small quantity). The Russians not only supplied arms but also military advisors and technicians who gradually took over the running of the war.

Stalinists will tell you that Russia provided arms right from the beginning. This is a lie - Stalin at first agreed to the non- intervention pact for fear of antagonising the West. The first arms did not arrive until October and then it was out of fear that German and Italian arms would give a decisive edge to the fascists. Aid was given "covertly and in order to limit the possibility of involving Russia in a war" (Krivitsky In Stalin's Secret Service p. 81 - Krivitsky was Stalin's Chief of Intelligence in Western Europe). Because of this fear of involvement in war with Germany and Italy, aid was limited to bolstering the resistance until such time as Britain and France might intervene. This aid had to be paid for - the Spanish gold reserve was moved to Moscow.

The Communists knew that if a far reaching counter-revolution was to be enforced the State, with their support, would have to regain control of the army and the police. There was no point in telling workers to drop collectivisation and give up their arms if this order could not be imposed. All States rest on this use of force and that is why a successful revolution can only be made when the people are armed.

Because of Soviet aid it was easy for the Communists to gain control of the armed forces. It was not because of the amount of arms sent but the fact that the Soviets were the major purveyors of war materials. The Navy and Air Minister, Prieto, often made fun of his office declaring that he "was neither a Minister or anything else because he received no obedience from the air force. The real Air Minister was the Russian General Duglas".


Because of this control of arms the Communists, supported by the others, enforced militarisation. The militia system was broken up. A regular army was rebuilt with officers, regimentation, saluting and differential rates of pay. The militias who refused to come under the command of the War Ministry (and many CNT and POUM militias did refuse) were starved of arms. They were left with no choice.

The new army was built under Communist control. They knew that without control of the army they could not hope to control the anti-fascist camp. Because the Fifth Regiment (the major Stalinist controlled unit) took a lead in disbanding, the Communists gained control of five of the six brigades of the new army. They also gained control of the General Commissariat of War which was set up for the purpose of exercising political control of the army through the medium of political commissars. As most of these were Stalinists they controlled the flow of political papers to the front. Invariably the anarchist papers were held up. All the soldiers read were the lies of the Communist Party.

Not only the army was rebuilt but also the police, especially the hated Civil Guards who had been a bulwark of repression against the CNT. They were now to be called the National Republican Guard. The Assault Guards were re- established and had 28,000 recruits by the beginning of December. The Carabineros, who were the border police in charge of customs and under the control of Minister of Finance Negrin (a known Communist sympathiser) grew to 40,000 members. Before the War there were only 16000 of them and that was in the whole of Spain. Negrin's under- secretary made it clear what their role was "You are the guardians of the state and those visionaries who believe that a chaotic situation of social indiscipline and licentiousness is permissible are utterly mistaken because the army of the people, as well as you Carabineros, will know how to prevent it".

The state was giving itself a monopoly of force. The workers' patrols which had sprung up in July were disbanded. Workers were ordered to hand in their arms and those who declined to do so were considered 'fascists'. It was said that these arms were needed at the front. While it is true that arms were needed at the front this argument was only put forward as a means of disarming revolutionary workers. There were plenty of arms under the control of the police. George Orwell observed after the May Days in Barcelona "the Anarchists were well aware that even if they surrendered their arms, the PSUC would retain theirs, and this is in fact what happened after the fighting was over. Meanwhile actually visible on the streets, there were quantities of arms which would have been very welcome at the front, but which were being retained for the 'non-political' police forces in the rear". (Homage to Catalonia p.151).

The counter-revolution now moved against the Collectives. On January 7th 1937 the dissolution of the workers supply committees was declared. Distribution of food was handed over to the G.E.P.C.I. This led to shortages and hoarding to inflate prices. For the first time in the war Barcelona experienced hunger yet there was plenty of food. The collectives were blamed but it was well known that if you joined the PSUC you could be guaranteed food.


Credit was withheld from those workplaces who refused to come under government control. As said earlier the banks had not been taken over so the government had a huge lever against the workers. Nationalisation of major industries was declared thus bringing them under government control. They claimed this was necessary for the war effort. They claimed the collectives were inefficient and that each workplace was only concerned with its own profits. It cannot be denied there were problems with some better off collectives. But the CNT was aiming at co-ordination through socialisation under the control of the workers. To do this all private ownership of the means of production would have to end. Of course the Communists would not allow this as it threatened their cherished middle classes.

On the land collectivisation was allowed only for the lands of fascists, the estates of those who supported the Republic were to be handed back. How far the Communists were prepared to go was illustrated by the invasion of Aragon. The Defence Council of Aragon was declared illegal in August 1937. This declaration was followed by the invasion led by General Lister's (a PSUC member) 11th Division. According to the CNT the land, farm implements, cattle and horses which had been confiscated from supporters of the right wing were returned to their former owners.

In some villages farms were deprived of the seed needed for sowing while 600 CNT members were arrested. In all, 30% of the collectives were destroyed and the sowing of crops was disrupted. As can be imagined nothing but hatred, resentment and disillusionment resulted from this invasion and the repression that followed. The peasants began to wonder what they were fighting for. The resultant disillusionment no doubt contributed to the collapse of the front a few months later. Similar attacks were made on the collectives in Levant and Castille.

This showed how far the 'socialists' of the Communist Party were prepared to go to follow Stalin's instructions. A more sinister aspect of this was the existence in Spain of prisons belonging to the Soviet secret police, the GPU (forerunners of the KGB). Their existence has been established beyond all doubt. In December 1936 Pravda declared "As for, Catalonia, the purging of the Trotskyists and the Anarcho-Syndicalists has begun, it will be conducted with the same energy with which it was conducted in the USSR".

Here is what Krivitsky had to say about the activities of the GPU in Spain, the decision to establish it having been taken at an emergency conference in Moscow on September 14th. "The GPU had its own special prisons. Its units carried out assassinations and kidnappings. It killed in hidden dungeons and made flying raids. The Ministry of Justice had no authority over the GPU. It was a power before which even some of the highest officers in the Cabellero government trembled. The Soviet Union seemed to have a grip on loyalist Spain, as if it was already a Soviet possession". (In Stalin's Secret Service p. 102).

The aim was to eliminate revolutionaries. Anybody who dared to speak out against what they were doing could be the next to suffer. Nin, the leader of the POUM, was murdered by the GPU as was Camillo Berneri, an Italian anarchist who was critical of the CNT leadership. He published a paper, Guerra di Classe, which argued for a revolutionary war against fascism. He was murdered by so called 'socialists' for his principled revolutionary position. In July 1937 60 members of the CNT `disappeared', a term used then as now for those killed by the secret police, though today it applies to the dictatorships of Latin America.

Two Roads

Thus two mutually exclusive ways of fighting fascism emerged. Firstly you could view it as the Stalinists and their supporters did. Go out of your way to placate the bosses in England and France and hope against hope they would intervene. So fight it as a Civil War a war over who were the legitimate rulers of Spain. Relegate politics to a secondary role. Put revolutionary politics on the back burner. Tie up thousands of arms in the rear repressing the workers' movement. Smash collectivisation and sacrifice the gains of the workers and peasants to the international interests of Stalin.

Opposed to this was the view that a revolutionary war should be fought. Make revolutionary politics your central weapon. Give the land and factories to those who work them. Make propaganda behind the fascist lines. Give the peasants a real reason to fight Franco. Make it clear that collectivisation would benefit them. As it was many lived in fear of the Stalinists smashing their collectives. Giving the land to the peasants and making that a central plank of the fight would have deprived Franco of many soldiers who were the sons and daughters of peasants.

Give freedom to Morocco. Organising an uprising there against Franco would have deprived him of a central source of supplies and arms. Appeal directly to the European working class (whose governments had no interests in supporting -the Spanish Revolution. Appeal to the French workers, who in 1937 were entering the second year of an upsurge which had begun with mass strikes the previous year. Their action could have prevented intervention against the revolution by France, and indeed Britain.

Seize the gold reserves and expropriate the banks. Use this money to buy arms and make sure arms went to the fronts where they were needed. These were the sort of things that should have been done. They were no guarantee of victory but could have lit a spark which could have ignited right throughout Europe and broken the isolation of the Spanish Revolution. It could have marked a turning point for the whole of Europe. Instead Spain was to be yet another victim of fascism - and the Civil War a prelude to a bloody world war. The Popular Front could not have carried out these actions because it was based on an alliance of classes. The workers needed to take complete control. This was possible, especially in Catalonia where a regional congress of workers councils should have been called to establish a Workers Republic. This example would have been followed throughout Spain and a revolutionary war could then have been fought. Not a war to put the Communists, Socialists and Republicans back in government but a war to liberate the toiling masses.

But the working class did not take power. The CNT, which was in a central position to do this, refused. It opted for collaboration and supported decree after decree undermining the revolution. Objectively the leaders of the CNT and FAT became counter-revolutionary. In a dual power situation either the workers overthrow the ruling class and take power or the ruling class regains control. There is no middle way. The CNT in collaborating could go only one way. Revolutions cannot be half made. The working class must assert itself or the revolution is doomed. So why didn't the anarchists take power? We will now turn to this.