Fascism and Antifascism. Part two. Spain: Working Class Antifascism versus Stalin’s counter-revolution.

From ‘The Authority of the Boot-maker’ by Mal Content.

“If order is restored, we say, the social democrats will hang the anarchists; the Fabians will hang the social democrats, and will in their turn be hanged by the reactionaries; and the Revolution will come to an end.”

-Pyotr Kropotkin: ‘The Conquest of Bread 1906.

“A government which sends boys of fifteen to the front with rifles forty years old and keeps its biggest men and newest weapons in the rear is manifestly more afraid of the revolution than the fascists”.

– George Orwell, antifascist: ‘Eye Witness in Barcelona’, Controversy: The Socialist Forum,
Volume 1, no 11, August 1937

In February 1936 the broad-left Popular Front had narrowly defeated a right-wing National Bloc comprising monarchists, the Catholic Church, and the fascist Falange party. The election was an irrelevance as Spain had for decades been sliding inexorably into all-out class war. The right never had any intention of accepting the result and many of the people who voted for it didn’t believe in government at all.

“Between the election in February and the fascist revolt in July there were 113 general strikes, 228 partial general strikes, 145 bomb explosions, 269 deaths, 1287 wounded, 215 assaults and 160 churches burned. … On June 13th, 30,000 Asturian miners struck; on June 19th 90,000 miners throughout the country were on strike. Every city of importance had at least one general strike. Over one million were out in the first days of July.”

– Eddie Conlon: ‘The Spanish Civil War: Anarchism in Action.’

The anarchosyndicalist National Confederation of Labour (C.N.T.) and its sister organisation the Iberian Anarchist Federation ‘The FAI’ having been in open revolt against the republic and the monarchy before it, called on rank and file socialists and union members to join them in a revolutionary alliance against the imminent fascist coup. The country was bitterly divided between the workers and peasants on the one hand, and the church, army, landlords and industrialists on the other. Their interests lay in diametrically opposite directions, as Durruti put it:

“There are only two roads, victory for the Working Class, freedom, or victory for the fascists which means tyranny. Both combatants know what’s in store for the loser. We are ready to end fascism once and for all, even in spite of the Republican government.”

– Buenaventura Durruti, antifascist: quoted in the Toronto Star.‘Two Million Anarchists Fight for the Revolution.’
24th July 1936.

On the 20th July, three days into the rebellion, the socialists/republicans realised they had nothing left to lose and the third Popular Front government in as many days recognised the workers’ militias as a fait accompli; a little background is in order.

The Spanish workers’ organisations had followed a very different path to those in Britain and Germany. From the 1840s onwards they were influenced by the libertarian ideas of Proudhon, and later Bakunin. The Spanish Workers’ Regional Federation (F.T.R.E.) advocated social revolution, federalism and extra-parliamentary (direct action) methods, affiliating to the International Working Men’s (sic) Association until the split, in which it naturally took the anarchist side. With three hundred thousand members the F.T.R.E. participated in the short-lived First Republic and set up an anarchist commune at Cartagena. After the restoration the movement went underground but conducted a vigorous resistance, a small statist party, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (P.S.O.E.) also emerged and founded the General Workers Union (U.G.T.). Spain’s defeat by the U.S.A. in 1898, amounting to the death of one imperial power and the birth of another, intensified the class antagonism, casualties were enormous, mainly from disease.

“The ships that brought our men back to our shores have not been like boats from the Motherland, but something closer to Charon’s boat, taking them to a hell of misery and sufferings. It’s clear to all that the blood of the poor is cheap and their death matters very little.”

– Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, writer and early Republican politician.

The military and religious elites blamed the militant proletariat for the loss of their colonial possessions in the Americas and the Pacific, and turned their famous brutality inwards. In industrial Barcelona, the workers’ anger and aspirations of regional autonomy collided with the emerging bourgeoisie, who in 1901 adopted ‘el pacte de la fam’, – the hunger pact – blacklisting of activists, in February 1902 a general strike was declared, martial law imposed and pickets fought the army leaving seventeen dead, forty-four injured and three hundred and seventy-one imprisoned.

Barcelona rose again in July 1909; a general strike over the war in Morocco spontaneously became an insurrection called the ‘semana tragica’ in which the people built barricades and burned down fifty churches. The colonial war was a serious bone of contention; ill-equipped and poorly trained conscripts suffered heavy losses against the superior Berber troops, but the rich could buy off the draft. The church symbolised centralised power and imperialism, and had an effective monopoly on education, with illiteracy running at over fifty percent in the Working Class districts. Following the execution of five prominent anarchists, including the education pioneer Francisco Ferrer, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo was established with almost half its members being Catalan. At its 1919 congress it formally declared its commitment to anarchist/libertarian communism. The socialists and anarchists often worked together but the C.N.T. was wary of Moscow and retained its libertarian character. After a delegation visited the U.S.S.R.* it revoked its provisional membership of the Comintern and instead joined the International Workers Association, building its membership to over a million.

* See Chapter Eleven.

Throughout its history the Confederation was repeatedly banned or suppressed; there were waves of strikes, sabotage, lockouts and arrests, alongside tit-for-tat assassinations of militants, bosses and government officials. In response to the insurrectionary general strike of 1917 the government installed army officers in the regional administrations, and enacted the ‘ley de fuga’ or ‘law of flight’ which allowed police to shoot suspects while escaping custody. Being easy to fake this opened the way for extra-judicial executions. The church and the employers’ associations funded ‘Sindicatos Libres’ – scab unions – which hired gangsters, ‘pistoleros’ to shoot confederals, necessitating the formation of armed defence committees. This urban guerrilla wing, self-funded by armed robbery, existed uneasily alongside the pure syndicalists, who preferred to operate within the system towards economic issues, believing that the time was not right for revolution.

The class collaborationists lost the argument with the murder in broad daylight of one of their own, the moderate and legally-minded Salvador Segui. The Libres were targeting syndicalists as the most immediate threat; meanwhile the more combative elements in the union were resolved to punish the pistoleros and their sponsors. The prominent gangsters Juan Languia and Joan Serra were assassinated along with former Police chief (and German agent) Bravo Portillo, the Prime Minister Eduardo Dato, the president of the Owners’ Federation Felix Graupera, the former governors of Barcelona and Bilbao and the Cardinal Archbishops of Toledo and Zaragoza. They only narrowly missed getting the King.

“Several other anarchist groups decided to launch an attack on the Hunters’ Circle, a pistolero refuge and meeting place of the most vicious employers. The raid had a devastating psychological effect. They never imagined that more than fifteen people would audaciously burst into their lounge and fire at them at point-blank range, but that is exactly what happened. The bourgeoisie asked for police protection and many pistoleros fled Barcelona.

There was tremendous confusion in the city. The poor supported the radical workers and greeted police invasions of their neighbourhoods with gunfire. It was a bitter war, and Durruti and his friends were destined to live out one of the most dangerous and dramatic chapters of their lives. Years later a witness observed that “it had no precedent other than the period experienced by Russian revolutionaries between 1906 and 1913. These youths disregarded the adults’ prudent recommendations and became judges and avengers in Spain’s four corners. They were frequently persecuted by the state and had no support other than their own convictions and revolutionary faith.”

– Abel Paz, antifascist: ‘Durruti in the Spanish Revolution’.

The central government pulled the plug on Catalan state terrorism, for a little while, but the violence had taken its toll on the C.N.T.’s membership and resources. However, it was these insurrectionist affinity groups and defence committees who would go on to rally the people into one of the most significant conflicts of the 20th century.

The disastrous conduct of the Moroccan war de-stabilised the constitutional monarchy, which had to be rescued in 1923 by the bloodless coup of General Primo de Rivera, ending one general strike and provoking another. Although the dictator took office with no discernible ideology beyond preservation of the status quo – monarchy, property and church, both he and King Alfonso visited Rome within two months of the coup.

“It has not been necessary to imitate the fascists or the great figure of Mussolini, though their deeds have been a useful example for everyone.”

– Miguel Primo de Rivera, quoted in
‘The Franco Regime 1936-1975’ By Stanley G. Payne.

His sentiments were in step with most of Europe’s ruling classes at the time, his son José would go on to found the explicitly fascist Falange party during the second republic. In 1926 the labour minister, having made a study of Italian corporatism, began dividing Spain’s economy into twenty-seven economic corporations on the fascist model, with compulsory state-supervised arbitration between capital and labour – a sham as the most popular union had been driven underground. The bourgeoisie had exploited Spain’s neutrality to generate large profits from WW1, and the relative prosperity of the 1920’s allowed for economic growth and modernisation of the infrastructure, but overall wages declined and the conditions of the rural poor became ever more wretched. The Moroccan war ended by chance, when separatists following the Rif leader Abd-el-Krim invaded French Morocco, prompting a military alliance between France and Spain.

The military dictatorship ended co-operation between the C.N.T. and U.G.T., the former maintaining an armed struggle with many of its members imprisoned or exiled. The U.G.T. secretary Largo Caballero opportunistically entered the government to oversee the compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes, illustrating the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Second International. For once the phrase ‘social fascist’ was entirely apt. During this period Spanish anarchists involved themselves in class struggles in Latin America, and made alliances with comrades around the world. The need arose to co-ordinate the activities of anarchist affinity groups across the Iberian Peninsula, in order to balance the day-to-day battle for material improvements with the maintenance and promotion of anarchist principles. Discussions initiated by Portuguese anarchists with Spaniards in exile led in 1927 to the inaugural congress of the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI); its task, as well as co-ordinating resistance to the dictatorship and the bosses, was to keep the union revolutionary in both theory and practice.

The U.G.T. having accepted the invitation to participate in the dictatorship, there were those within the Confederation who wanted legal recognition to compete with it. The C.N.T. was first and foremost a labour union whose membership on occasions reached two million. Its militancy and direct action methods got results, and since the situation of the workers was desperate, it was bound to attract people who just wanted to eat; so from time to time reformist tendencies crept in which could be satisfied by some semblance of democracy. The Marxists, republicans, separatists and all those who feared the power of the Working Class courted these people, deluding them that they had any influence, but ultimately gave them no respect since they had voluntarily tied their own hands.

Towards the end of the decade the rebellion broke into the open again and Rivera, having lost the confidence of the army, went into exile, but the king remained tainted by his support for the dictatorship. A year later municipal elections were called, which were contested by a republican alliance as a de-facto referendum on the monarchy; they won by a landslide. The government resigned and was replaced by a very broad* Socialist–Republican coalition.

* The Republic was supported by many figures that would subsequently fight on opposite sides in the Civil War.

As the king fled the country, the Second Republic was declared on the 14th April 1931, it was doomed from the start. Primo de Rivera’s self-aggrandising government by decree had wrecked Spain’s economy internationally, halving the value of the Peseta. The Depression badly hit both agriculture and industry, the value of exports fell, wages were cut still further, prices and unemployment rose and land fell into disuse while the people starved; the money economy was not working for most Spaniards and libertarian communism offered the only practical solution. As in the rest of Europe, the ruling class looked to fascism. Some commentators have pointed to the uniquely clerical character of the Spanish far right as somehow setting it apart from mainstream fascism, but fascism never needed a coherent ideology, insofar as it is reactionary ultra-nationalism, it will necessarily exploit regional obsessions, from the weird folk paganism of the Nazis to Hirohito’s ‘Era of enlightened peace’, they make it up as they go along.

The socialists hoped to increase their influence amongst the Working Class by improving their lot, but all the power in the land was held by forces opposed to change. The Catholic Church was state-subsidised and controlled a third of Spain’s wealth, it also presided over the subjugation of women, a terrific subsidy to the bourgeoisie. Agricultural land was in huge estates held by the monarchist aristocracy, the same class that dominated the army and navy. Ten per cent of the army were officers, which like the church provided employment for the useless offspring of the rich. Landlords were able to fix wages, prices and rents within their domains and could hire and fire at will. The Carlists* just wanted a different king. Between these poles were the extremists of the centre who hoped liberal democracy would lead to a modern capitalist market economy. The industrial Basque and Catalan bourgeoisie wanted independence to free themselves from the old feudal relations. Neither the little Spanish Communist Party (P.C.E.) of a few thousand members, nor the embryonic Falange exerted much influence to begin with.

* A cult of ultra-conservative, monarchist, religious fanatics hung up on royal bloodlines and such.

So the survival of the republic depended on the collaboration of all these conflicting interests, none of whom could budge an inch without upsetting the applecart. Nor could it function without the acquiescence of the Working Class, in whom it had raised expectations the state would never be able to deliver. Miguel Maura was Interior Minister:

“Our problem was as follows: The monarchy had committed suicide, and so we either had to join the nascent revolution to defend within it legitimate conservative principles, or we had to let the left wing and the workers’ organizations have a free hand, a very dangerous alternative.’”

– Miguel Maura: ‘How Alfonso XIII fell’ Mexico City, 1962

The honeymoon didn’t last long; the instability in the new republic was highlighted when a group of right-wing Civil Guards opened fire on the May Day rally in Barcelona, in the gunfight that ensued, some infantrymen sided with the workers. A split likewise opened within the Confederation, as the ‘legalisers’ resorted to airing the union’s internal disputes in the bourgeois press, which delighted in publishing their attack on the FAI. The ‘thirty’ had to be expelled and set up opposition unions and a political party.* The Socialist Workers’ Party dominated the government although its union had fewer members and having collaborated with the dictatorship had become simply a top-down, reformist, scab union. It received preferential treatment as a tool of the government. Anti-union laws were enacted and a new paramilitary police force the Guardia de Asalto, ‘assault guards’ created to be used against strikers.

* The Syndicalist Party participated in the popular front of 1936 and the opposition unions were re-admitted just prior to the coup.

For the Confederation it was business as usual as it went into action against another round of state repression, the workers were growing in confidence and strikes led to land occupations and armed insurrections, there were several declarations of libertarian communism, and mines were occupied in Catalonia. The usual suspects were deported to the Spanish colonies without trial, although these actions were rarely initiated by union officials or even the FAI but by the rank and file, as the bureaucracy struggled to keep pace with the militancy of its membership. The revolution gathered momentum throughout 1932; an atrocity by the Civil Guard in Rioja resulted in the demotion of their commander General Sanjurjo, who began to plot with the Falange. Sanjurjo’s attempted coup was defeated by the prompt action of the C.N.T. defence committees, effectively saving the Republic, which showed its gratitude by driving the union underground again. In January 1933 insurrections in Catalonia, Andalusia and Levante ended with the massacre by Assault Guards of unarmed peasants at Casas Viejas, some of whom who were burned to death in their hovels, further hardening attitudes to the Republic. The FAI claimed responsibility for the uprising as a political gesture although it had in fact been planned by the confederal defence committees. It invariably got the blame anyway for any militant activity from the socialists and the gradualist elements in the union.

The P.C.E. stuck steadfastly to the Comintern’s ‘class against class’ line – social democracy equals social fascism. The republican government was “not to be defended or supported under any circumstances”.* The position changed over the course of 1933 after Hitler’s accession brought about the annihilation of the German labour movement. Henceforth Stalin courted the liberal democracies of the west, diplomatic recognition by the U.S.A. followed assurances that Communist subversion in that country would cease. Germany’s pact with Russia’s old enemy Poland, made an alliance with France imperative, so the French Communist Party began to make overtures to the very reformist Socialist Party, leading to the first popular front.

* Party officials who defied Moscow to rally their members against Sanjurjo’s coup were replaced.

In September an election boycotted by over a million C.N.T. members returned a right-wing coalition and the anarchists responded with a new offensive, briefly capturing several cities. The Confederation sought an alliance with the General Workers union, but without the influence of the Socialist Workers’ Party, since it had no interest in installing another authoritarian government. This only happened in Asturias, where the rank and file made a pact in defiance of their respective leaders. The socialists now found themselves persecuted using the very legislation they had devised to thwart the anarchists. The following year they attempted a coup together with bourgeois Basque and Catalan separatist elements; cynically however, they knew the confederals would not scab on their general strike. The Catalan administration, the Generalitat, which had been given a degree of autonomy in 1932, continued to repress the C.N.T. and lacking the resources to take on the army, its declaration of independence was a flash in the pan. To the socialists’ astonishment, in Asturias they lost control of the revolt to the workers, who declared libertarian communism, running the munitions factories day and night to arm their militia. After two weeks of fierce fighting the province was re-captured by General Franco’s African Legion, which massacred three thousand people. The mining districts were the last to fall, at the end there were thirty thousand political prisoners.

The national committee of defence committees, in a presentation to the October 1934 congress noted that the tactic of spontaneous, improvised insurrection, often called ‘revolutionary gymnastics’ had run into a law of diminishing returns and recognised the need to prepare for a protracted civil war against the modern military-industrial state. The requirement for ‘propaganda by the deed’ to precipitate a revolutionary situation had passed, since the conflict was now inevitable and the anarchists were going to bear the brunt of it. The left politicians, even from their prison cells, still harboured dreams of defeating the right through constitutional means with a broad electoral coalition, as if the lessons of Italy and Germany were still to be learned.

The decision was taken to formalise the structure of the defence committees to fulfill their role as the clandestine military apparatus of the union. The C.N.T. was organised as a confederation of trade rather than industrial unions so the defence committees would be embedded in, and funded by these unions, but answer to the national committee. A district committee would be made up of little cells, each with half a dozen members of the same trade union, well known to one another, who would each take on a specific area of intelligence-gathering, planning and co-ordination. They would collectively amass the detailed local knowledge necessary to conduct a guerrilla campaign in their neighbourhood, identifying potential threats, targets, vantage points, supply routes, arms caches, storage depots and so on. Those unions responsible for infrastructure, especially transport, communications and power, would co-ordinate on a national level to enable them to quickly take control of their respective functions. Plans would be laid for rapidly transforming manufacturing industry into war production. A special department was dedicated to infiltrating the military.

A month before the 1936 elections the P.S.O.E. joined with the Communist Party in the Popular Front, promising an amnesty and land reform. Throwing in their lot with them were some liberal bourgeois republican parties and the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) a newly-formed group of independent communists estranged from the socialist Second, the Stalinist Third and the Trotskyite Fourth Internationals. This time, the confederation pragmatically didn’t bother organising a boycott,* they knew they would be fighting fascists before the year was over and it would be harder to get support if the enemy could claim any democratic legitimacy, plus they needed those prisoners out.

* They held discussions with the politicians. Their price for supporting the Popular Front was sufficient arms to defeat the military rising. They were turned down and decided to simply stay out of it.

The incoming Popular Front government restricted its amnesty to purely political prisoners, excluding those anarchists who had committed common law offences during the insurrection. It banned the Falange and demoted Generals Franco and Mola who met in March to plan the coup; they chose as their figurehead General Sanjurjo, whose 1932 takeover had been foiled by the Working Class. With characteristic incompetence, the government posted the conspirators to Spain’s periphery so they could plot with impunity. Manuel Goded was sent to the Balearics, where Mussolini would establish naval and air force bases. Emilio Mola, the brains behind the operation, was made military governor of Pamplona, with its eight thousand fanatical Carlist Requetés, busy drilling in the Pyrenees. The Carlists established a military council on the French side in contact with officers of the right-wing Spanish Military Union, and the Falange. Despite their relatively small numbers, both groups had wealthy backers, and were able to purchase significant quantities of arms from overseas.

The bourgeoisie were out of control, ignoring the new land reform legislation and refusing to re-employ sacked militants; a cartel of wealthy Spaniards speculated against the Peseta on the foreign exchanges. Crops were left in the fields or fed to animals, creating an artificial famine. The people took matters into their own hands by opening the provincial prisons and occupying unused land, much of which was wastefully allocated to raising fighting bulls. Aristocratic landowners panicked and fled to the cities or overseas. In Badajoz on 25th March:

“some sixty thousand peasants-more than half of the adult male rural population of Badajoz- marched upon some three thousand previously selected [large] farms. [crying] “Viva Ia Republica” marked out the limits of the areas they were to cultivate and began to plow. The precision and perfect order with which this gigantic mass of people acted were impressive.”

– Edward E Malefakis: ‘Agrarian Reform and Peasant Revolution in Spain, Origins of the Civil War’

The C.N.T.’s national congress opened in Zaragoza on the 1st May 1936. On the mandate of a countrywide referendum, the opposition unions were invited to Zaragoza and allowed to speak. The ‘manifesto of the Thirty’ issued at the dawn of the second republic by the syndicalists, had sparked a bitter feud, with expulsions and even violent clashes between rival unions. The Thirty had criticised the revolutionary gymnastics of the anarchist action groups, and wanted a plan for industrial reconstruction to precede social revolution. The situation had moved on in the interim, however. The sequence of failed insurrections had led the Confederal defence committees to undertake a methodical structural reorganisation, equipping them to defeat the military street-by-street with minimal resources.

A working party* had drafted a lengthy motion entitled: ‘The confederal concept of libertarian communism’. It was a sincere attempt to create a platform on which the different strands of the anarchist and syndicalist movements could unite to take on the fascists. It was also intended to present a coherent position that the authors hoped would allow for a revolutionary alliance with the U.G.T. The motion was adopted and agreement was reached with the opposition unions, who were re-admitted to the Confederation just in time. In ten weeks the Confederation would be at war, and the ‘Zaragoza programme’ formed the blueprint for its social revolution. This generosity of spirit would lead the anarchosyndicalists to collaborate honestly with the partisan factions of the Popular Front: republicans, social democrats, Bolsheviks, Stalinists, Basque and Catalan Nationalists – and would eventually cost them their revolution.

* The working party consisted of Eusebi Carbó, Joan López, Federica Montseny Mañé, Juan García Oliver, and Dr Isaac Puente. The resolution is quoted in full in Volume 1 of ‘La CNT en la Revolución Española’ by José Peirats Valls.

On 1st June the Madrid U.G.T. and C.N.T. construction unions brought seventy thousand builders, electricians and lift operators out, The U.G.T. accepted an increase in wages and the reduction of working hours but the confederals wanted to defeat the bourgeoisie once and for all and escalated their demands. July opened with a wave of terrorism from the Falange, notably the occupation of Radio Valencia on the 11th and the assassination of Assault Guard Lieutenant José Castillo the following day. The socialists retaliated immediately by killing the Leader of the Opposition Calvo Sotelo. The government had patently lost its grip; rebellious army units took orders only from General Mola whilst those loyal to the Republic looked to the workers’ organisations for a lead. On the 13th July anarchist agents in the barracks obtained the army’s final plans; on the 14th the government unhelpfully tried to placate the military by ordering all union locals to be closed. On the 15th the funerals of both Castillo and Sotelo took place in Madrid in an atmosphere of great tension.

In Barcelona there were some twenty thousand militants organised in over two hundred C.N.T. district committees, plus anarchist affinity groups of the FAI, Mujeres Libres (Free Women) and Libertarian Youth. There was a desperate shortage of weapons, some had been captured during the previous uprising but nowhere near enough to go round. A liaison committee had been mandated to negotiate with the Generalitat. On the 16th of July their regional assembly resolved to call for a united revolutionary front with the other unions and proletarian parties; they would request arms from the state, but make plans to seize what they needed as soon as the army rose. The chemical workers’ union began to manufacture explosives. Over the next three days the Popular Front government in Madrid frantically tried to placate the military, offering General Mola a ministerial post, arresting armed anarchist patrols and censoring the C.N.T.’s call to action, which had to be distributed by hand. Two Prime Ministers resigned in rapid succession rather than arm the workers, who by now were sleeping in the union halls, ready to go.

Each committee would be responsible for the defence of its own area, and collectively the unions would seize the infrastructure. The subway and drainage workers would manage the movement of personnel and equipment beneath the city. The army was mainly stationed at the outskirts, so they would have to meet up in the centre to take the government buildings, telephone exchange and radio transmitter then carve out a route to the port. The plan was to halt each regiment’s advance just far enough away from its base to isolate and overwhelm it. The regional defence committee comprising the Los Nosotros affinity group, whose names were already well known throughout Spain and elsewhere: Ascaso, Durruti, Fernández, Ibáñez, Jover, Oliver, Ortiz, Ruiz, Sanz; was housed in the construction union offices. They fitted out two lorries as mobile headquarters. They were in close contact with Sergeants Gordo and Manzana at the Atarazanas barracks, plus some comrades at the El Prat airfield, who arranged reconnaissance flights by Nosotros members. The aviators’ first task would be to bomb the Sant Andreu Central Artillery Barracks so the confederals could get their hands on its arsenal. Requisition patrols cased out caches of valuables, mainly in church premises, in preparation for their expropriation.

On the 17th, the army mutinied in North Africa and quickly gained the upper hand, shooting actual and potential opponents as it went. The Madrid government insisted it had matters under control. The same day in Barcelona the C.N.T. maritime transport workers’ union boarded two vessels anchored in the port, and liberated a few hundred rifles and pistols. Some three hundred lever-action Winchester ‘73s were in the hands of the municipal workers having been dropped into drains by fleeing separatists two years earlier. An old Hotchkiss machine gun, stolen piecemeal from the Atarazanas barracks, was mounted on one of the lorries. Delegates approached the Catalan interior minister; if he would equip at least a thousand of the most experienced guerrillas the confederation could guarantee the defeat of the coup. He knew only too well whom he was being asked to arm; Barcelona’s anarchists, feared, reviled and persecuted, thrown into jail on the slightest pretext, condemned to the most menial jobs and the worst housing, offered their lives to hold hell at bay. But once they had slain the monster before which their masters cowered, who would hold back the social revolution? The choice had been spelt out often enough: fascism or libertarian communism. The minister insisted he had nothing to spare; the defence of Barcelona was to be left to the socialists’ Assault Guards, the more conservative Civil Guards, and the Generalitat’s security police.

On the 18th, when the military rebellion had spread to the Canaries and Seville, the C.N.T. and U.G.T jointly announced their revolutionary general strike. Firearms were retrieved from under floorboards, home-made grenades were assembled; gunsmiths were raided, and some youths relieved the night watchmen of their pistols. In Madrid the Defence Committee organised five-man patrols with pistols and grenades, and hijacked an army truck. The unions began to requisition vehicles and paint them with their initials. The Naval N.C.O. Benjamin Balboa, having intercepted a telegram from Franco, alerted the fleet to the mutiny. Sailors convened workers’ councils aboard ship, and overnight around three quarters of the aristocratic officer class, being fascist sympathisers, were shot. The Air Force would fight for the republic although some officers deserted at dawn with their aircraft.

The British Dragon Rapide landed in the French territory of Casablanca, where it was met by Bolin, Franco then flew on to Tetouan once the air force base there had been secured, a group of co-conspirators awaited him. All Republicans and union members were rounded up, and squads of Falangist volunteers brought in every day to shoot them. He despatched Bolin to buy arms on the open market, and having unexpectedly lost the Navy, urgently requested German transport planes to bring his African mercenaries to the mainland. The Moroccans were accomplished shock troops whose characteristic skill was for moving stealthily over open ground. They had every reason to hate Spaniards after years of colonial brutality, had been told the godless Republicans wanted to ban Islam, and were given licence to rape and pillage. To encourage recruiting, the Luftwaffe would carry their loot back to their families.

Around midnight Julián Gorkin of the POUM went to Barcelona’s central police station to demand arms. The liaison committee returned to the Interior Ministry; at their instigation an angry crowd of dock workers from nearby Barceloneta was pouring into the square, facing three companies of assault guards. At the last moment an official acting on his own initiative diverted a hundred pistols from the building to the FAI delegate Diego Abad De Santillan, who brought them to the construction union. Confined in their barracks, the soldiers were told that anarchists had risen against the Republic; this would lead to confused fraternisation with the assault guards, who initially took them for loyalists. It would also cause many to turn their fire on their officers when the lie was discovered. A thousand Falangists entered the barracks and put on uniforms, armed priests took up positions in the church towers, ready to fire on the Working Class.

Just before dawn on the 19th, Barcelona’s factory sirens alerted the workers that troops were leaving the Pedralbes barracks and the barricades went up. The crowd surrounding the government offices fell quiet; an assault guard carrying a rifle took his pistol from his belt and handed it to a stranger, others followed suit. At street level, the rivalries between anarchists, socialists and Catalanists were being set aside. Betrayed by their institutions and abandoned by their government, the people at once realised they had nowhere to place their faith but in themselves and each other. Flying the red and black flag, the regional defence committee’s two mobile command posts set off from the Jupiter football field in Poble Nou with the cabinetmaker Antonio Ortiz and the builder Ricardo Sanz on the machine gun behind the cab of the first vehicle. The confederals fell in behind as it passed, singing their revolutionary anthems, all their lives had prepared them for this moment. Watched by the chief of police from his balcony they made their way to Las Ramblas, home of the transport and metalworkers unions, a vital conduit between the outlying barracks and Atarazanas, the military offices and the docks. The soldiers were allowed to approach as far as the city centre where they were met by sniper fire from the rooftops and the proverbial bomb-throwing anarchists.

Valeriano Gordo and Martín Terrer* tried unsuccessfully to take over the Atarazanas barracks; instead they opened a side door, passing out machine-guns, rifles and hand-grenades, exchanging fire with the defenders as they made their escape, then set up a gun emplacement at the nearby Plaza Del Teatro, where one of the command trucks was parked.

* Augustín Guillamón. ‘Barricades in Barcelona: The CNT from the Victory of July 1936 to the Necessary Defeat of May 1937.’ Most sources have it that José Manzana accompanied Gordo in this action. According to Guillamón however, Manzana was already under arrest on the 19th and was only freed after the fighting. See also: Marquez and Gallardo, ‘Ortiz, General sin dios ni amo’, Hacer, Barcelona, 1999, p. 101.

At the Plaza de Cataluña the infantry were driven into the hotel Colón and the lower floors of the telephone exchange, which they sand-bagged and defended with machine guns. The largely female telephonists’ union barricaded themselves upstairs to prevent the equipment from falling into the hands of the enemy, and listen in on their calls. The committee that had occupied the main post office on Saturday night intercepted fascist telegrams routed through a French contact, and altered the content to create extra confusion. An infantry company that attempted to reach the radio station on Casp Street was massacred apart from a few who took refuge in the Ritz.

The army had its only success on the Via Parallel, which linked the Plaza de España with Atarazanas and the docks. A squadron of the Montesa Cavalry entered the Plaza shouting “long live the republic”, which as elsewhere, had the intended effect. The assault guards initially joined them and in the confusion that followed they were able to take prisoners including women and children.* The Sappers’ Regiment entered the Plaza from a different direction and attempted to pass the barricade blocking the road. Two cannon were deployed against workers armed with pistols and shotguns, leaving body parts hanging in the trees and trolley cables. The sappers made it through to the docks and routed a company of assault guards; thus they were able to reinforce the barracks and set up machine guns at the Columbus monument. The woodworkers union, housed on a side street hastily assembled a huge barricade where it joined the Parallel at Brecha de San Pablo. Here the Cavalry, shielding themselves with their hostages, swept the street with machine gun fire and drove the workers back, to occupy both the local and the barricade. Their position was purely defensive however, as the surrounding streets were controlled by the Working Class, they were going nowhere; the battle here lasted six hours. A further squadron of cavalry accompanied by a group of Falangists occupied the university building where it eventually succumbed to the POUM.

* Terrorist tactics against civilians (the ‘Mola Plan’) were integral to the nationalists’ strategy, so the army had orders to take non-combatant hostages wherever possible. Later in the war, his plan would be implemented with devastating effect using air raids on residential districts. The right never expected an easy win, and for the economic regime they had in mind, the Working Class were not only too militant, but too numerous.

The first four trucks which set out from Sant Andreu Artillery Park were ambushed and ransacked. Now the Seventh Light Artillery taking the same route ran into a company of assault guards on Diputació Street; they set up their battery protected by a row of machine guns and held out for a couple of hours, resisting the best efforts of a gathering crowd to dislodge them, the machine guns creating heavy casualties. This tragic impasse was broken when the workers loaded up with grenades and clambered aboard the flatbeds of three trucks, which were then driven flat out into the machine guns. The longshoreman Manuel ‘El Artillero’ Lecha hauled his captured cannon to the Plaza de Cataluña, then around Barcelona’s hot spots throughout the day and night of the 19th.

The Mountain Artillery Regiment, whose barracks were at the docks, advancing on Icaria Avenue towards Barceloneta found itself impeded by five hundred tons of spooled paper that had been unloaded in half an hour with electric forklifts from one of the ships. Nearby some assault guards were handing out rifles to anyone who could produce a union card. The battery was bombarded with mortar fire from the roof of the government building then forced back up the road as the dockers rolled the spools forward whilst their comrades fired from behind and lobbed grenades over the top. Relieved of their officers and artillery they retired to barracks and a barricade was erected to keep them there until they were ready to quit. Simultaneously at the woodworkers’ barricade reinforcements had arrived and a counter-attack was underway; the army was caught in a pincer movement organised by Francisco Ascaso and Garcia Oliver. After Ascaso shot their commanding officer another stepped up only to be brought down by a cavalry corporal.

‘While Francisco Ascaso was jumping for joy and waving his rifle over his head, García Oliver was shouting over and over, “Look what we did to the army!”‘

– Agustín Guillamón: ‘Barricades in Barcelona: The CNT from the victory of July 1936 to the necessary defeat of May 1937’.

In the afternoon, the fascist general Manuel Goded flew in by seaplane from Majorca to find his forces divided and surrounded. Ignoring his assistant’s advice to turn back he landed at the naval base which was still in fascist hands, and was driven by armoured car to the army headquarters. Through all this the Civil Guard had remained in their barracks, they were technically under the Catalan Interior Ministry and their commander, General Aranguren had declared for the republic, but their loyalties were uncertain. Now they were sent to Plaza de Cataluña, teeming with armed workers who regarded them with the utmost suspicion. They joined the assault on the Hotel Colón with a group of POUM militia led by Josép Rovira and artillery support from Manuel Lecha; after thirty minutes and heavy casualties, white flags appeared and the POUM occupied the space. At the same time a large crowd headed by Buenaventura Durruti and the Mexican anarchist Enrique Obregón (who died in the attack), invaded the telephone exchange. Lecha turned his cannon on the Ritz and its occupants surrendered to the assault guards.

Goded sent reinforcements to the Icaria barracks, where they were hammered by the Dockers’ captured artillery; his last hope was General Aranguren, who was having none of it. Goded was given half an hour to surrender then his headquarters were shelled from all sides, Lecha was there. Taken into custody for his own safety he was persuaded to broadcast a statement over the radio freeing his command from their commitments, to avoid further bloodshed. Leaflets dropped from the air explained that the uprising had been started by the generals, and the presence of the conservative Civil Guards amongst the workers confirmed this, so those troops still besieged by the masses began to turn on their officers and open the doors. The mechanics at the naval base did likewise. Rebels hiding in the Carmelite monastery agreed to hand themselves over to the Civil Guard in the morning. Groups of FAI activists occupied the Bruc barracks at Pedralbes and renamed it the Bakunin, the first war committee was formed here.

As each barracks fell, more workers were armed; Sant Andreu surrendered around midnight yielding thirty thousand rifles. The civil guard, who were still walking the line between republic and revolution, had been sent to guard them for the Generalitat, but balked at firing on the crowd. Power now lay in the street; the district committees came into their own, organising communications, food and supplies to the fighters. Assault guards and loyalist troops removed their uniforms to blend in with the workers, and were incorporated into new revolutionary committees. General Mola’s brother shot himself overnight; by morning only Atarazanas remained in the hands of the army. With the burning churches illuminating the new world in their hearts, the metalworkers’ union refused any assistance from the forces of the former state. The Nosotros militants joined them to storm the fascists’ last bastion in Barcelona, the action in which Francisco Ascaso lost his life.

“The attack was redoubled. Now Ascaso had found shelter on Mediodia Street behind a truck which was riddled with bullets. Wanting to eliminate a “sniper” who kept him from advancing, he leaned against the hood of the car. A bullet hit him full in the face and he was killed instantly. Durruti was overcome by the death of his comrade. Already when Obregon was killed during the attack on the Central Telephone Exchange, Durruti’s anger had burst out and had pushed him forward to the very doors of the exchange. Now his fury was unleashed. Without looking at anyone, he left for the barracks. The other fighters fascinated followed him. The soldiers terrified by this tidal wave surging towards them hastened to raise the white flag.”

– Abel Paz: ‘Durruti, the people armed’.

It was one p.m. In thirty-three hours the coup had been defeated in the city and the workers were in control. As this news spread throughout Catalonia, demoralised mutineers abandoned their posts to the people. Ricardo Sanz carried Ascaso’s body to the Transport Workers Union, just one of the four hundred revolutionaries who had perished in the battle. The regional committee convened in the Construction Union, a hive of activity. Amid the chaotic comings and goings and enquiries, a telephone call was received from the Generalitat, requesting a delegation to see the Governor, the Regional Secretary Mariano ‘Marianet’ Vasquez answered sarcastically: “OK. We’ll get right on it.”* Representatives of the unions met a couple of hours later to discuss the options.

*- Luis Romero: ‘Tres días de Julio.’

The meeting was split between those who wanted to push for full social revolution in the hope that it would spread through the rest of Spain, (Garcia Oliver used the phrase “going for everything”) and those who believed it was necessary to collaborate with the statist parties that held sway elsewhere in the country, to be sure of beating the fascists. There was a well-founded fear of foreign intervention if the state were to be abandoned altogether, there were British warships moored at Gibraltar, and much of Spain’s industry was owned by British capitalists. Oliver alone argued for immediately proclaiming libertarian communism. Manuel Escorza suggested they might use the Generalitat to socialise production, so that it would quickly render itself obsolete. That sounded suspiciously like Marx’s idea of the state ‘withering away’. The delegation representing the workers of Bajo Llobregat rejected the idea of collaboration with political parties altogether, but would stop short of taking power*. Covered in dust and armed to the teeth, the liaison committee entered the palace of the Generalitat, to confront the regional governor, Lluis Companys.

* Oliver later clarified that taking revolutionary power was indeed what he had in mind, but he was careful with his language. He was regarded as, in Montseny’s phrase: “the most Bolshevik of all of us”.

My grandad used to say: “Every dog has his day; it’s knowing when you’re having it that counts”. The liaison committee was not of the class collaborationist tendency; its members were experienced labour organisers and veterans of numerous street battles with the cops and the bosses’ pistoleros, but were about to be outmanoeuvred by the devious Companys, a union lawyer turned career politician who had just been informed by his exasperated Chief of Police that his authority extended no further than the walls of his office.

Having hitherto been prepared to abandon Catalonia to fascism rather than risk social revolution, the governor embarked on an exercise in damage limitation. He had already assembled representatives of the political parties in an adjoining room. He apologised profusely for his lack of faith in, and persecution of the confederals, congratulated them on their victory, and offered his services, either as a common foot soldier, or as governor administering the province on behalf of an antifascist coalition, reminding them that his own party, plus the civil and assault guards had also played their part in liberating the city. With hindsight they ought to have shot him, or conceded his obsequious request to serve at the front: “Yes mush, right at the front, missing you already”. The revolt of the military, supported by the church and the aristocracy, had shattered the fragile illusion of legitimate authority, and it was not going to return by itself. Whilst the anarchists went to seek a mandate from their unions, the politicians plotted their counter-revolution.

Companys’ offer presented a perennial anarchist dilemma: what to do with power until such time as it can be dissolved forever. Logically, it can only be exercised, shared with others who have a different agenda or given away by default. Even in Catalonia, where the C.N.T. accounted for sixty percent of the Working Class, imposing libertarian communism by decree would create a fantastic paradox, dismissed by Federica Montseny as an ‘anarchist dictatorship’. That in fact was Companys’ zero option; leaving Catalonia in the hands of the libertarian and POUM militias without formal oversight, in the hope that they would fuck it all up, be judged harshly by the people and that European capital would eventually intervene. One alternative would have been to throw open the union membership to all, so that its directly democratic, federalist structure could be used for decision making, but it would have the input of Marxists, Stalinists, separatists and other bourgeois. The incorporation of groups with partisan axes to grind would inevitably force it into a representative role.

Shamefully, the question was never put to the rank and file but decided in haste by the delegates to the Plenum of the Catalan Regional Confederation, exceeding their mandates in defiance of federalism. After fierce argument, the meeting voted to participate in a ‘committee of antifascist militias’, but crucially allowing the Generalitat, which presently existed in name only, to survive with its support, on condition that executive power was vested in the committee. The Generalitat would keep responsibility for relations with the equally ineffectual Madrid government. Neither body openly acknowledged the reality of dual power; in fact Companys’ decree legalising the ‘citizens militias’ made no mention of the committee at all.

Durruti it’s said was uncharacteristically quiet. It’s worth bearing in mind that he’d just lost his best friend, and nowhere can I find any account of him having slept since he discharged himself from hospital on the 14th, he was supposed to be convalescing from a hernia operation.

The strategy, outlined by De Santillan, was of ‘democratic collaboration’, to deceive the rest of Spain and Europe that libertarian communism had been set aside, that property was real and the bourgeoisie still had a voice, at least until the situation had stabilised enough for the fascist gains to be assessed, and the reaction of the international proletariat made known. However the political composition of Catalonia did not allow for any kind of proportional representation. In their magnanimity, the anarchist majority would give equal say to the tiny socialist parties and U.G.T., and to the liberal-bourgeois Catalanists. So libertarian communism would be postponed for the duration of the war, which would be prosecuted under the nominal legal authority of the republic. The spectre of substitutionism loomed, in that a party substitutes itself for the class and claims to speak on its behalf without having the faintest idea what it wants.

Of course, the decision was no longer theirs to take, the people were already collectivising the factories and the fields, blissfully unaware that their revolution was about to be betrayed by the very pioneers whose example had inspired them to achieve the impossible. As anarchists they should have anticipated, that freed from the impositions of government, religion and property, the workers and peasants would spontaneously organise to take their lives into their own hands. Even the historic 20th July issue of the C.N.T.s daily paper, ‘Solidaridad Obrera’, distributed on the barricades, was published by a group of workers who just happened to pass by its empty premises and took it upon themselves to write, lay out and print the journal. The railway workers announced the socialisation of their industry on the 21st July, public transport on the 25th, water electricity and metallurgy the following day. In the vacuum left by the bourgeoisie, numerous factories had been expropriated by the time the federation of Barcelona unions announced the return to work on the 28th.

“What the CNT-FAI leadership had failed to take on board was the fact that spontaneous defensive movement of 19 July had developed a political direction of its own. On their own initiative, without any intervention by the leadership of the unions or political parties the rank and file militants of the CNT, representing the dominant force within the Barcelona Working Class, together with other union militants had, with the collapse of State power, superseded their individual partisan identities and had been welded – Catholics, Communists, Socialists, Republicans and Anarchists – into genuinely popular non-partisan revolutionary committees wielding physical and moral power in their respective neighbourhoods. They were the natural organisms of the revolution itself and the direct expression of popular power.

The assumption that political power in Catalonia had passed to the higher committees of the CNT-FAI was, probably, the principal blunder which was to undermine the revolutionary process. By failing to displace the ‘legitimate’ political element within the state the military provoked the collapse of State power. It was the people, led by the militants of the defence committees, who had stood firm against the reactionaries while the government had dithered. In doing so it lost its right to rule. The people now wielded power – in the Working Class quarters and at the point of product and distribution – not the State or the union leaders who had now outlived their usefulness to the revolutionary process. A dual power situation existed – diffused popular power against centralised political and union power.”

– Stuart Christie, antifascist: We, the Anarchists! A Study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI), 1927-1937

In hindsight it’s like watching a car crash in slow motion, but in the heady days of 21st July, with the people armed and throwing boxes of banknotes into bonfires, probably the anarchists genuinely didn’t consider the composition of any political body to be important, it was all for show, wasn’t it? Certainly Durruti considered the committee an irrelevance, and only attended one meeting. Thus the anarchists, having led by example, beaten the army, and drawn the Working Class of all stripes into their revolution, not only ended up as a minority faction in a government maintained entirely by their own efforts, (liberal democracy, in other words) but through their participation in this sham, ceased to be anarchists!

To put these decisions and their consequences in context, I think it’s worth casting back to two statements that were made in January of that year, when the politicians were assembling their Popular Front, and the C.N.T. was seeking a fraternal pact between trade unions that would side-step it. The first is a resolution of the latter’s Regional conference that took place on 25th January 1936.

“UGT must recognize that the emancipation of the workers is only possible through revolutionary action. Accepting that point, it must break off all political and parliamentary collaboration with the bourgeois system. … For the social revolution to be effective, it must completely destroy the regime that presently controls Spanish economic and political life. … The new social relations born of revolutionary victory will be governed by the express will of the workers, gathered publicly and with complete and absolute freedom of expression for all. … The defence of the new society requires the unity of all forces and that the particular interest of each tendency is put aside.”

– José Peirats, antifascist: ‘Frente Libertario’, Paris, September and October 1972.

The statement concluded by calling autonomous organizations to join either the C.N.T. or U.G.T. in accordance with their affinities. Given the short notice with which this assembly was convened, most of the union locals were still closed, so activists expressed personal views without mandates, leading to harsh criticism and an unsuccessful procedural challenge; however, once on a war footing this less federal decision-making process would become the norm.

The second voice is that of the U.G.T. boss Largo Caballero:

“Preventing the Socialist Party from being the sole leader would betray the Party’s very essence. … When the dictatorship of the proletariat is established, the government will have to fight anyone who disagrees with it, just as the Bolsheviks permitted no opposition and destroyed their opponents.”

The political landscape may have changed beyond recognition in the month of July but the gulf between these two perspectives was always unfathomable.

For what it’s worth, the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias of Catalonia was constituted as follows: Three Delegates from each of the C.N.T., the U.G.T. and Esquerra Republicana (Companys’s party); one each from the FAI, the POUM, the P.S.O.E., Catalan Action, Union de Rabassaires (Catalan smallholders’ party). The Generalitat was represented by a commissioner and a technical military adviser, Jesus Pérez Farràs*.

* Farràs was Companys’ man, a Catalanist and former commander of the Generalitat’s city guards, who at some risk to himself, had saved General Goded from lynching to broadcast his surrender on the radio.

So roughly half the C.C.M.A.C. represented the people of Catalonia, the remainder spoke for the former central and regional governments (both of which had spectacularly failed in their allotted task) foreign capital and the bourgeoisie. During the month of August, it busily established councils and commissions for war industries, food, transport, propaganda and so on, which looked suspiciously like government departments. However the day to day running of the city, and therefore of production, was a matter for the revolutionary committees, one for each of the thirteen wards, which practiced de-facto libertarian communism and were now open to the participation of all citizens. The pre-existing defence committees co-opted whoever and requisitioned whatever they needed. Together they recruited and provisioned the militia and their dependants as well as the injured, sick and infirm. They organised hospitals, transport and communications. It’s a truism that the first task of the revolution is to feed the people; if they are worse off than before, they will soon fall prey to reaction.

“Thus the really practical course of action, in our view, would be that the people should take immediate possession of all the food of the insurgent districts, keeping strict account of it all, that none might be wasted, and that by the aid of these accumulated resources every one might be able to tide over the crisis. During that time an agreement would have to be made with the factory workers, the necessary raw material given them and the means of subsistence assured to them while they worked to supply the needs of the agriculture population.”

-Pyotr Kropotkin: ‘The Conquest of Bread 1906.

There were thirteen distribution warehouses for staple foods, fuel and other essentials; a network of supply committees federated in a central supplies committee. It would be months before the volunteers could draw any pay with which to provide for their families, so each ward had a free canteen where anyone could eat. Once these needs were met, the remainder was passed to retailers at prices fixed by the committee.

“The Central Committee of Antifascist Militias of Catalonia was “legalized” by decree of the Catalan government. The government itself was reduced to the role of ratifying things that already were in effect. All of the bodies created by the revolution had the legal approval of the government: Committee for a New Unified School; Economic Council of Catalonia; Supply Committees; Patrols (militia police); Control Committees for non-collectivised industries; Factory Committees of collectivized industries; Committees of Workers and Soldiers (control over the officers in the old army) and others. The Catalan government resigned itself to a purely decorative and paternal participation in this process in hopes of better times. The better times were not long in coming.”

– José Peirats: ‘The Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution’

An important consequence of the democratic collaboration was the amalgamation of two very different organisations; the FAI, a federation of autonomous affinity groups, and the C.N.T., a trades union open to anyone who would accept its principles and abide by its decisions. The ideological and propaganda functions, and the muscle, were brought under one roof and given the acronym CNT-FAI. Its Catalan regional committee took up residence in the former Banco de Cambio on Via Layetana, henceforth known as ‘Casa CNT-FAI’

The Spanish Communist Party was insignificant at the start of 1936, with fewer than 100,000 members, mostly among the professional classes. By offering some insurance for private property, status and wage differentials in the face of the growing social revolution, it was able to boost its membership to over a million by the end of the year. Within days of the coup, its tiny Catalan counterpart, the P.C.C. ate the region’s Socialist Workers’ Party and sucked in a couple of other left groups to form the P.S.U.C., it immediately affiliated to the Comintern and Stalin got a seat at the table.

Madrid was dominated by the Montaña Barracks; the officers there prevaricated over joining the coup owing to poor communications and an understandable desire to be on the winning side. The garrison’s commander refused to open his armoury to the militias, neither would he declare for the rebels. On the morning of 19 July the C.N.T. demanded the release of all their prisoners within three hours, or they would see to it themselves. Prime Minister (since 7 a.m.) Giral caved in to the inevitable and emptied the prisons. One of the first out was the bricklayer Cipriano Mera, recently imprisoned for his part in organising the builders strike, he went straight to his union to get on with the job. The new government issued 65,000 rifles to the unions but all but 5000 of the bolts were held in the barracks. The fascist General Fanjul, who had also participated in the 1932 coup, arrived at the Montaña and attempted to persuade its officers and men to join the nationalists and impose martial law on the city, reassuring them that General Mola’s Army of the North were only 50km away over the Guadarrama mountains and would shortly be in the capital. In the event, Mola’s advance on Madrid was halted in the Sierra by lightly armed peasants. By the time the inhabitants of the Montaña had made up their minds, anarchist and socialist militias were in position alongside the assault guards; fighting broke out with Falangists in the city and shots were exchanged with the troops. The following morning the barracks came under fire from loyalist aircraft and a couple of field guns supervised by a retired artillery officer. A white flag appeared, but as the workers surged forward they were shot at. An enraged mob of CNT-FAI and Young Socialists swarmed through the gate under heavy machine gun fire with Assault Guards bringing up the rear. In the melee that followed some defenders managed to surrender, others were summarily executed, thrown from windows or committed suicide, there was great loss of life on both sides. Mera assembled a militia column to clean out the fascists to the North of the capital; his aptitude for military strategy would earn him the confidence of the Republican generals and lead to him taking command of the 4th Army.

The coup was soundly defeated in those areas where Working Class militancy had reached a tipping point, sufficient to give the socialists confidence to commit themselves, and the paramilitaries to take the people’s side; much of the military and police were simply hedging their bets, and changed sides in both directions. Zaragoza had been a C.N.T. stronghold, but the leadership was on the reformist side and too cosy with the government; arms were promised but never delivered. It was also the military headquarters of the region, whose commander General Cabanellas played a double game until the 19th July when he declared war on the people. The Assault and civil guards went over to the nationalists and the city was lost. Striking workers were shot; a mass grave uncovered in 1979 revealed seven thousand bodies.

A similar act of duplicity cost Oviedo, the capital of Asturias; Mola’s orders were explicitly to delay confrontation with the Working Class until the garrison could be reinforced. The commander Colonel Aranda had convinced the civil Governor of his fidelity to the government, and would not release arms to the people without orders from Madrid. The workers’ organisations could not agree to act against him, leaving him a free hand to move his personnel and artillery around. When ministers asked the miners to come and help defend the capital Aranda was enthusiastic, and the Governor assured them the city was in safe hands. Once two columns had left, taking most of the rifles and dynamite in their possession with them, he walked out of a council meeting and launched his own mutiny. One of the columns was ambushed by Civil Guards in Leon. Oviedo was surrounded but remained in enemy hands, the mass executions commenced with the civil Governor. The second largest city, Gijon, was taken by anarchist dockers. In Seville, where the Communist Party controlled the U.G.T., fighting broke out between the unions, allowing the nationalists to take the city by default.

A moment of black comedy was provided by the pompous General Sanjurjo, when the light plane sent to collect him from exile in Portugal, weighed down with all his dress uniforms, accoutrements and medals, failed to clear the trees at the end of the runway, so the fascist and his finery went up in flames.

The loss of Zaragoza was keenly felt. Durruti and Oliver were unhappy with the decision of the Plenum and the way it had been taken. Oliver proposed they overthrow the Generalitat at their earliest convenience, Durruti insisted the priority was the liberation of Zaragoza and the thirty thousand confederal prisoners presumed to be held there (who were as good as dead if they delayed), so the column that was to bear his name set off for Aragon on the 24th, after his famous interview with the Toronto Star.

“There were a dozen youth at the head on a truck. The Herculean José Hellín stood out among them, waving a black and red flag. He will die defending Madrid on November 17 while blowing up Italian armoured personnel carriers. The centuria led by the metalworker Arís followed behind. Five centurias came next: there were the miners of Figols and Sallent, who would soon distinguish themselves as an elite force of dynamiters, and also sailors from the Maritime Transport Workers’ Union led by Setonas, who will prove to be outstanding guerrillas. “El Padre,” an old militant who fought with Pancho Villa’s during the Mexican Revolution, led the Third Centuria. Textile worker Juan Costa was responsible for the Fourth Centuria and the nineteen year old libertarian Muñoz represented the Fifth Centuria, formed exclusively by metalworkers.”

– Abel Paz: ‘Durruti in the Spanish Revolution’.

The column was organised prefiguratively, reflecting the classless free society it was fighting for. Durruti maintained that the volunteers could not fight fearlessly against the enemy if they were motivated by fear of their officers, and history shows that conflicts involving conscripts under coercion become exercises in mass skiving and shirking responsibility. Villages liberated along the way were encouraged to collectivise, which they embraced with enthusiasm and ingenuity.

Two days later the column was within twenty miles of Zaragoza, and the militians experienced their first taste of the fascists’ blitzkrieg tactics. An attack by three Italian planes left twenty dead and caused some of the workers to panic and run. The more experienced guerrillas grabbed and held them to prevent a rout. Durruti halted the column and addressed the militia in the square at Bujaraloz; he reminded them of their doomed comrades languishing in Zaragoza and invited anyone who couldn’t handle the situation to leave their weapon and return. Those who remained would take Zaragoza or die in the attempt, but they must do so as anarchists, of their own free will; no one left.

Companys’ military adviser, Pérez Farras, and Colonel Villalba, who commanded the Barbastro garrison, prevailed upon Durruti to halt the advance until its flanks were secured. In a couple of weeks it had stabilised the front line from Velilla de Ebro to Leciñena, seventy-eight kilometres, but run out of ammunition. With the political parties on board, neither the C.C.M.A.C. nor the government in Madrid had much enthusiasm for liberating thousands of anarchist militants, possibly linking Catalonia and Aragon with the notoriously militant Asturias. Straightaway the anarchists found themselves fighting on two fronts as the Stalinists had begun to misbehave; eight machine guns hidden in the offices of the P.S.U.C. were hastily returned when the column threatened to come and collect them.

The ill-conceived raid on Mallorca led by Captain Alberto Bayo, a Cuban-born aviator and adventurer*, but not endorsed by the C.C.M.A.C. had ended in failure with considerable losses. It threatened to open another front perilously close to Barcelona.

* Bayo had a career as a military instructor in Mexico and Latin America after the war, training Fidel Castro and Che Guevara amongst others.

García Oliver told Durruti that the situation demanded the committee switch attention from the Aragón front to the Italian occupation of the Balearics:

““We have to postpone the attack on Zaragoza. First, because the Columns south of the Ebro River and around Alcubierre have not achieved their objectives and we needed that to occur before launching the frontal assault. Second, because of the expedition to Majorca (sic), which could prompt the Italians to intervene in order protect their bases in the Balearic Islands. England would not remain impassive if Italy acted imprudently in Majorca. If England intervenes, the war will have a new dimension. The fate of the Spanish revolution, García Oliver said, is being decided outside of Spain. We have to set our sights on Majorca and Morocco.”

Durruti argued that the French and the British would be able to get along very well with the Italians in an effort to avoid an extension of the conflict. In addition, the operation in Majorca might end in a fiasco and they risk losing precious time in Aragón if they delay the attack. The enemy would doubtlessly use that time to reinforce its positions: it was well aware of Zaragoza’s importance for the future of the war. Durruti asserted that it was essential to take the city at all costs. It was the link with the north and the war will be won once contact is reestablished with it, since that will enable them to focus all their efforts on the troops that Franco is unloading in Andalusia. As masters of the Peninsula, Durruti said, they will be able to resist whatever obstacles the international capitalists might impose.””

– Abel Paz (op.cit)

It was clear from the outset that the outcome of the war, and the fate of the revolution, would not be decided on the Spanish battlefields but overseas. If an Italian intervention were provoked, it was believed Britain would side with the republic.*

* Hitler and Mussolini were both testing Britain, when it became clear the latter wasn’t going to do anything, they started to take the piss.

The international proletariat would have to be drawn into the struggle. In particular, the fascists must be defeated in their Moroccan base. Oliver first tried to persuade the Madrid government to declare the protectorate independent then began talks with Arab activists in exile. Meanwhile time was running out for Zaragoza, the people were not armed and the General Strike was being weakened by nationalist violence. The U.G.T. was trying to negotiate its way out and went back to work leaving the anarchosyndicalists isolated.

Given the shortage of equipment much of the column’s military activity was limited to reconnaissance missions and small-scale commando raids. Cartridge cases had to be collected and returned to Barcelona for re-loading. Approximately a quarter of the militia did not have weapons at any one time so they occupied themselves with agricultural work, giving industrial and rural workers a better understanding of each other’s needs. A reciprocal arrangement developed with peasants receiving military training, some eager volunteers had to be recalled from the front as their expertise was needed in the fields. The fearless libertarian experimentation of the Aragonese peasantry and the revolutionary zeal of the column potentiated each other, enabling both to fully appreciate the essence of the war as defence of the social revolution. These contacts would lead to the formation of the Defence Council of Aragon, to integrate provisioning the columns into their libertarian socialist economy and to resist the encroachments of government.

In Valencia a curious standoff had developed, a joint U.G.T./C.N.T. general strike was called and the strike committee took over the running of the city. The troops remained in their barracks; whilst the governor insisted they were loyal, there was evidently some kind of debate going on and shots were heard from inside.

“In Valencia we had a governor who was the very embodiment of political ineptitude and frivolity. He was so inept that, only a few days prior to the fascist military revolt – and following the murder of Calvo Sotelo and the spread of alarming rumours to the effect that the mutineers were stirring – he asserted that, in the view of the Valencia authorities, there was not even a shadow of a doubt regarding the loyalty of those same military forces to the republican regime”

– Juan Lopez: ‘El 19 Julio Levantino.’ From the anniversary edition of ‘Fragua Social’ 19th July 1937.

Representatives of the Popular Front parties resolved to dismiss the governor for incompetence and convened their own revolutionary committee in his office. Armed clergy and Falangists were agitating for mutiny and rumours flew; these reached the C.N.T. strike meeting, who approached the parties and offered to join them in an Executive Committee provided the community was put on a war footing, the telephone exchange, post office and radio transmitters secured and the military disarmed. Antifascists and Assault guards were to operate in a ratio of two to one so the workers could retain control, and three to one for Civil Guards.

The proposals were accepted, and with weapons donated by the Barcelona and Centre Confederations, the barracks cordoned off. The officers inside remained in contact with both ministers and the Falange. The ousted governor appealed to Madrid and there began a to-ing and fro-ing of delegations; a Government Delegate Council arrived to assume responsibility and disband the Executive Committee but fell at the first hurdle. The unions refused to consider calling off the strike until the garrison had been disarmed; food production and distribution would resume but all other trades were to remain mobilised. The people expressed their frustration by burning the churches and shooting the odd priest. David Antona, acting National Secretary recalls:

“After hearing the report [of delegates from the Valencia C.N.T.] and given the grave implications for Madrid and for the revolution should Valencia fall into rebel hands, I sought an audience with the interior minister in my capacity as secretary of the national committee. At our interview, we spoke at length of the situation in Valencia. The minister assured me that the Valencia garrison, if not completely loyal to us, might be regarded as a neutral factor in the struggle. I repeatedly urged him that the rifles stored in the government depot in that city should be issued to the people to guarantee the revolution.”

– David Antona: quoted in Peirats ‘The CNT in the Spanish Revolution’

My italics; an extraordinary statement, given the strategic importance of the City, and further proof that the government was in no way fit for purpose. The minister was supposed to intercede with the Civil Guard to get the rifles released, but none were forthcoming so the National Committee sent what it could spare from Madrid. The Government Delegate Council hastily assembled a column to secure Teruel; contrary to the stipulation of the Valencia Executive Committee the workers were outnumbered three to one by Civil Guards. Once on the road the paramilitaries opened fire on the militians and held Teruel for the nationalists.

It was decided to enter the barracks by force on the first of August; the Governor formally resigned and the Government Delegate Council disbanded. Three confederal columns assembled for the Teruel front: the Iron Column, the Torres-Benedito, and the Thirteenth; plus the U.G.T.’s Eixea-Uribes. Roque Santamaria was a FAI activist and secretary of the Valencia barbers’ union who joined the Iron Column.

“I found that my comrades were forming a century to join up with the Iron Column, which was being organised in Las Salesas. The people from my union who belonged to that century were all very young: less than 25 years old.

Whilst the Iron Column was being formed by the most extremist elements of the CNT and the FAI, another column (the symbol of what was then called ‘confederal reformism’, a tendency that caused a schism in the CNT* which was healed at its congress in Zaragoza that year) was being raised alongside it, which took the name Torres-Benedito.”

– Roque Santamaria, antifascist: quoted by Abel Paz.

* The ‘Treintistas’ after the thirty signatories to their manifesto against the FAI.

When the dust had settled from the uprising the nationalists held two unconnected areas amounting to about a third of the country, the remainder was either loyal to the republic, controlled by the workers, or in a fluid state. Scores were settled in both territories. In the nationalist zone an estimated between one- and two- hundred thousand executions of trade unionists, loyalist military including seven generals and an admiral, freemasons, atheists, artists, intellectuals, teachers, members of popular front parties and civic officials took place. Less than half the population supported the uprising, the rest would have to be silenced one way or another. Mola’s instructions were explicitly to liquidate anyone whose loyalty could not be vouched for, and that it was preferable to kill the innocent than spare any of the opposition.

On the other side, the reprisals were more spontaneous, against the background of sniping attacks on the workers which continued for a week, and a general desire to get in on the act. The targets were clergy, landlords and aristocrats, along with known informers, scabs and unsavoury characters like the Carlist pistolero boss Ramon Sales. In view of what happened later, arguably, they didn’t shoot enough of them. The requisition patrols went into action with a vengeance. After the initial excitement, CNT-FAI did their best to rein in the membership and a few militants were executed for acting unilaterally, including the secretary of the Barcelona builders’ union and the president of the catering union. On the other hand there are many documented instances of clergy receiving assistance to emigrate, or being allowed to continue with non-religious work, and millions of pesetas of confiscated valuables were conscientiously handed in to the district committees by penniless workers.

“Militarily speaking, the rebels had all but lost the war on 19 July. One need only glance at a map of Spain to appreciate the critical situation facing the rebels. Antifascist Spain held two-thirds of the nation’s territory. Comprising farmlands and industries, along with the bulk of the population, this antifascist zone accounted for the wealthiest part of the country. The seaboard, as well as the passable frontiers with Europe, was almost entirely under the control of ‘Red Spain’. This was true also of the bulk of the navy and the merchant shipping.

The rebels controlled the Castilian meseta but, with the exception of Galicia, had no access to the sea. Worse still, the entire central southern zone under rebel control was cut off from the revolt’s initial springboard, Morocco. Mallorca was neutralised by Mahón (a stronghold), while the Canaries were separated by the ocean.”

– José Peirats: ‘The CNT in the Spanish Revolution’

From Seville the fascists pushed northward along the Portuguese border, in motorised columns supported by Italian and German aircraft, securing their left flank and their supply route. In the first proper battle of the war Merida was captured, cutting off the provincial capital Badajoz. After 3 days of heavy shelling and aerial bombardment the walled city was attacked by three thousand Army of Africa and Foreign legion, the defenders comprising militia and paramilitaries but weakened by the mutiny on the 6th August of three hundred Civil Guards, and their resources overstretched by the arrival of thousands of refugees. The nationalist assault began on the 14th, 280 legionnaires stormed the Trinidad gate, the first waves being repulsed by accurate machine gun fire, only twenty two of the attackers passed, clambering over the bodies to despatch the machine gunners with knives and grenades. Armoured cars were brought in and the army found a breach in the walls on their south side. Once they had entered the city, part of its garrison defected. Badajoz fell after a fierce street battle and the legionnaires ran amok, few prisoners were taken and those were subsequently murdered. There followed two weeks of brigandage and a purge of leftists, republicans, those bearing arms or the mark of a rifle butt. Thousands of civilians were shot by machine gun in the bullring, often condemned by word of mouth. Refugees were turned back at the Portuguese border by police and handed directly to their executioners. Several foreign correspondents witnessed the massacre, including the Chicago Tribune’s Jay Allen:

“ELVAS, Portugal. Aug. 25 – …

… I have come from Badajoz, several miles away in Spain. I have been up on the roof to look back. There was a fire. They are burning bodies. Four thousand men and women have died at Badajoz since Gen. Francisco Franco’s rebel Foreign Legionnaires and Moors climbed over the bodies of their own dead through its many times blood drenched walls. …

… Thousands of republican, socialist and communist militiamen and militiawomen were butchered after the fall of Badajoz for the crime of defending their republic against the onslaught of the generals and the land owners.

Between 50 and 100 have been shot every day since. The Moors and Foreign Legionnaires are looting. But blackest of all: The Portuguese “international police”, in defiance of international usage are turning back scores of hundreds of republican refugees to certain death by rebel firing-squads.

They were young, mostly peasants in blue blouses, mechanics in jumpers, “The Reds”. They are still being rounded up. At 4 o’clock in the morning they were turned out into the ring through the gate by which the initial parade of the bullfight enters. There, machine guns awaited them. After the first night, the blood was supposed to be palm deep on the far side of the ring. I don’t doubt it. Eighteen hundred men- there were women, too- were mowed down there in some 12 hours. There is more blood than you would think in 1,800 bodies. ,,,

… Where were the government planes? That is one of the mysteries. It makes one quake for Madrid.”

– Jay Allen: Slaughter of 4,000 at Badajoz, ‘City of Horrors’,
Chicago Tribune 30th August. 1936

General Yague admitted to four thousand killings in Badajoz alone but most of the bloodletting took place in the countryside, where the recently expropriated aristocracy rode with the African Legion to regain their territory, exacting a terrible revenge on the peasantry. Their standing joke was that each landless labourer would get a free burial plot; on walls they painted: “your women will give birth to fascists”.

France’s recently elected Popular Front government proposed to supply aircraft and artillery to the Republic, but was dissuaded by the British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, whose sympathies, like most of the Tory party, lay with the fascists.* The British ambassador in Madrid moved to France for the duration of the war, and Britain unilaterally applied an arms embargo. The new French government walked a tightrope, with strikes, factory occupations and clashes between militant workers and fascist groups. The Spanish ambassador declared for the nationalists; Prime minister Blum being nervous of the powerful Catholic lobby, and his own military, was keen to shift the responsibility elsewhere. Eden persuaded him that neither side could win without foreign intervention, and since the coup had been a dismal failure the republic was best served by staying out of it. France and Britain pressed for a Non-Intervention Agreement, which was eventually signed by 27 countries including Germany, Italy, Portugal, and the U.S.S.R. The French left, and Blum’s erstwhile Communist Party allies brought his government down a year later.

* Eden is said to have told the French that he preferred the fascists to ‘the communists’, but of course the embargo resulted in the de facto Stalinist takeover of the Republican zone. In opposition Blum campaigned against non-intervention, and gained power again in April 1938. He lifted the embargo, whereupon his government was brought down by the right.

The British government went to extraordinary lengths to discourage assistance to Spain; in December it passed the Merchant Shipping (Carriage of Munitions to Spain) Act, and on 9th January 1937, threatened to invoke the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870 against the volunteers, though this never actually happened. It was, however used as legal justification by Franco for the execution of British prisoners. Only Mexico stepped up to openly support the republic; meanwhile Germany, Italy and Portugal immediately weighed in on the side of the fascists.

“The insurgents have the advantage of getting outside help whereas the Government is getting none. The latter has applied to the French Government for permission to import arms from France, but so far at least permission has not been given. The insurgents, on the other hand, are being assisted by the Italians and Germans. During the last few weeks large numbers of Italian and German agents have arrived in Morocco and the Balearic Islands. These agents are taking part in military activities and are also exercising a certain political influence.”

– The Manchester Guardian 25th July 1936.

Emma Goldman wrote to the paper at the end of October:

“The sponsors of neutrality are trying to make the world believe that they are acting with the best intentions; they are trying to stave off a new world carnage. One might, by a considerable stretch of imagination, grant them the benefit of the doubt had their embargo on arms included both sides in this frightful civil war. But it is their one-sidedness which makes one question the integrity as well as the logic of the men proclaiming neutrality. It is not only the height of folly, it is also the height of inhumanity to sacrifice the larger part of the Spanish people to a small minority of Spanish adventurers armed with every modern device of war.”

“… “Now the question is, Will France go back on her glorious revolutionary past by her tacit consent to such designs? Will England, with her liberal traditions, submit to such a degrading position? And, if not, will that not mean a new world carnage? In other words, the disaster neutrality is to prevent is going to follow in its wake. Quite another thing would happen if the anti-Fascist forces were helped to cope with the Fascist epidemic that is poisoning all the springs of life and health in Spain. For Fascism annihilated in Spain would also mean the cleansing of Europe from the black pest. And the end of Fascism in the rest of the world would also do away with the cause of war.”

– Manchester Guardian 28th October, 1936.

Dave Hann has the figures:

“Italy sent an estimated 75,000 troops to fight on the side of Franco during the course of the Spanish Civil War, supported by 650 aircraft, 150 tanks and over 1,000 artillery pieces, as well as huge quantities of arms and ammunition. Italian warships and submarines also patrolled the seas around Spain for the alleged purpose of implementing the Non-Intervention treaty. The Germans sent their elite Condor Legion to Spain that comprised tanks, aircraft and 5,000 highly trained troops. German aid to Franco throughout the war probably numbered about 20,000 troops, 600 aircraft, 200 tanks and 1,000 artillery pieces. Aid also came from Portugal, which allowed nationalist forces passage back and forth across its long border with Spain as well as the use of its aerodromes, ports and radio stations. An estimated 15,000 Portuguese soldiers also fought on the nationalist side. American motor manufacturers, General Motors, Ford and Studebaker supplied the nationalists with an estimated 12,800 trucks and jeeps during the course of the war. U.S. oil companies, Texaco and Standard Oil, supplied Franco with unlimited· petrol on credit without which the German planes, the Italian tanks and the American trucks would have been useless.”

– Dave Hann: (op.cit).

From the beginning of August there were constant diplomatic exchanges between Berlin and Rome, a joint propaganda strategy was worked out based on ‘anticommunism’, and both countries committed to providing military hardware and personnel. Mussolini was after territory and lost no time in annexing Majorca – which was treated as an Italian colony for the duration of the war – commencing with an expeditionary force of Blackshirts and the murder of three thousand inhabitants. Hitler encouraged him with repeated assurances that the Third Reich had no ambitions in the region. He regarded Spain as an investment and expected his money back, every Reichspfennig, paid in Spanish copper and iron ore. Post-Rapallo, it would provide the perfect testing ground for the new German military technology and tactics, in preparation for his conquest of Europe. Provided Italy did the heavy lifting, Germany would match its financial contribution; it was agreed in September that Italy would have a free hand in the Mediterranean, and Germany in the Baltic.

Anticommunism was likewise a flag of convenience for Franco; hitherto he had been more obsessed with Freemasonry, but having bitten off more than he could chew only a trans-European fascist bloc could save him. The military had not, as they claimed, risen against ‘the reds’; the influence of Marxism in republican Spain was negligible. The rising was against the failure of the democratic republic to halt the autonomous workers’ and peasants’ movement that had been building steadily for thirty years. The Asturian commune of 1934 had demonstrated that this was in no way utopian but a practical methodology that bypassed leadership and bureaucracy, requiring only trust between workers, and the goodwill to seek consensus. Conflating this grass-roots phenomenon with the posturing of left-wing politicians just created a narrative that could be understood in London or Washington. Also the nationalists’ constituency included conservative smallholders and sharecroppers; better to scare them with ideas of a Soviet-style government nationalising ‘their’ farms, than speak of spontaneous land expropriation, lest they get any ideas. Franco’s ‘reds’ lumped in Masons, republicans, social democrats, atheists and anarchists, Moroccan, Basque and Catalan nationalists with the hypothetical Marxist bogeymen. Bolshevism died with the Rapallo Treaty, and Stalin was slow to take an interest, the first Russian arms didn’t arrive until October.

In reality the military coup and the social revolution were the two opposing classes’ responses to the futility of the Second Republic – which in turn had been a patch for the failure of the monarchy. Restoring either of these things was never an option, being desired only by minority interests in the rival camps. Eventually, with the Comintern at the helm the republic would indeed succeed in crushing the revolution, and job done, leave the stage to Franco.

“Although the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July, 1936, was followed by a far-reaching social revolution in the anti-Franco camp – more profound in some respects than the Bolshevik Revolution in its early stages – millions of discerning people outside Spain were kept in ignorance, not only of its depth and range, but even of its existence, by virtue of a policy of duplicity and dissimulation of which there is no parallel in history.”

– Burnett Bolloten: ‘The Grand Camouflage’.

The camouflage to which Bolloten refers, was of course on the republican side. The tragedy for the Spanish workers was that on both sides, the other players including their own political class, all had incentives for dragging the war out as long as possible. In ‘the Tragedy of Spain’, Rudolph Rocker lists some of the foreign interests at stake in 1936:

“English capital is very extensively interested in the rich iron mines in the vicinity of Bilbao, … the iron works of Desirto. The greater part of the dock facilities at Bilbao … the railways which carry the ores to the coast.

English ship lines complete the connection between England and the Basque iron fields. Spanish iron plays a tremendous part in England’s present rearmament program. And it is a fact that from the outbreak of the Fascist revolt till the fall of Bilbao the export of iron from there went to England exclusively.

… the English Rio Tinto Company, which exploits the richest copper mines in Spain, in the Huelva province.

… the House of Rothschild, which is interested, … in various railway lines, of which the most important is the Madrid-Zaragoza line. … the rich quicksilver mines of Almaden in the province of Ciudad Real, …

English capital is also prominently interested in the Spanish aluminium industry … railway building and machine construction. …

Vickers-Armstrong is heavily interested in the “Sociedad Española de Construcción Naval” (Spanish Naval Construction Company), in the “International Paint Company,” and in Spanish war industry.

… the [French] “Société Minèrere et Métallurgique de Peñarroya” … is especially heavily interested in the Spanish lead industry. …

… the telephone exchange at Madrid is in the hands of an American company, while the Barcelona telephone system is under the control of British shareholders. … “

– Rudolph Rocker: ‘the Tragedy of Spain’. 1937.

Rocker postulates that, had the coup occurred before the Great War, Britain and France would have backed it wholeheartedly, but the victory of fascism in Italy and Germany had brought with it a revival of their pre-war militarism and expansionist ambitions. Britain was not yet prepared for another war, so had to bide its time while Hitler and Mussolini opportunistically got their oar in. Apart from that a military dictatorship and an eventual return to monarchy would probably have been the best outcome for British capital. Despite their public protestations of neutrality, the British gave the fascists use of their facilities in Gibraltar to communicate directly with Germany, Italy and Portugal, and of course turned a blind eye to the fleets of Junkers and Savoias passing overhead. They even sent a warship to protect the nationalist port of Algeciras.

The U.S.S.R. was in an even more delicate position, having recently entered into the League of Nations. It had signed a mutual assistance pact with France in 1935, which was supposed to prevent either side from siding with Germany against the other, and stop the French Communist Party destabilising the mild socialist government. It had an uneasy relationship with Britain, and a shift in the balance of power could tip the latter into the arms of the fascists. The Comintern’s new popular front policy was to draw ‘progressive bourgeois parties’ into an alliance against fascism and this required that the threat of proletarian revolution be averted at all costs. In Stalin’s opinion (the only one that mattered, as the Great Purge of alternative opinions was well underway in his own party) there would shortly be a Western European conflict between bourgeois democracy and fascism in which he hoped to remain neutral, the better to pick up the pieces afterwards. The status quo must be preserved long enough for Hitler’s ambition to threaten the British Empire itself, ruling out the possibility of Britain and Germany joining forces against Russia. The timing was inconvenient as well, he was about to purge the Red Army, creating a temporary weakness. However, notwithstanding the apparently limitless credulity of the C.P. membership, appearing indifferent to a fascist coup against a socialist government in which a Comintern member was, however marginally involved, would rob him of all credibility with the international proletariat.

So in the meantime Russia would fight a proxy war against Germany in Spain in the name of the popular republic to protect the economic interests of Britain and France, whilst they looked the other way. Once Russia was involved, it would seek to prolong the conflict until the start of the European war Stalin hoped would save him the bother of defeating Hitler.* Better still, the conflict presented him with a golden opportunity to do away with all the troublesome revolutionary elements who would surely flock to the cause of the Spanish workers. Soviet officials were sent to Spain with the express mission of eradicating anarchism and Trotskyism by any means, exporting the Kremlin’s purge of the left and restoring the balance of power that existed prior to the 19th July. The later co-option of right-wing interests (such as the Catholic Basque nationalist party) into Stalin’s Popular Front, anticipated the ultra-conservative state capitalist peoples’ democracies of the post-war Soviet bloc.

* In this he was sadly mistaken, as Britain would appease Nazi Germany to the bitter end in the hope that it would first take on the U.S.S.R. In desperation, he would cut a deal with Hitler himself.

The first foreign volunteers were those who had travelled to Barcelona for the People’s Olympiad that had been scheduled to start on the 19th July, in protest against the official games being hosted by the Nazis in Berlin. Some were swept up in the revolutionary fervour and enlisted in the militia. One such was the swimmer Clara Thalmann who with her husband Pavel joined the Durruti Column on the Aragon front then fought with the Friends of Durruti in the May events of 1937. They were imprisoned by the Stalinists and later operated in occupied Paris as members of the Proletarian Revolutionary Group, assisting people on the run from the Gestapo. Miraculously the Thalmanns both survived to old age and set up an agricultural commune in the south of France, popular with student radicals in the 1960s. St Pancras Communist* Felicia Browne was killed in Aragon on the 25th August as she went to the rescue of a wounded Italian militiaman during a raid on a munitions train.

* The British Communist Party was firmly embedded in the class struggle, in the workplace, the community, the antifascist movement, amongst the unemployed, and its members were far more militant than their leadership, whereas the Spanish Communist Party was constructed virtually from scratch as a vehicle for Soviet control of the republican forces. At the start few foreigners would have been aware of the underlying tension between the Spanish workers and the republic.

Italian anarchist exiles began to arrive in Spain in August, and went straight to Aragon, most were attached to the Ascaso Column. They were organised by Camillo Berneri, former Professor of philosophy at Florence University. They went into action on the 28th at the battle of Monte Pelado – Berneri recalled: “We defended the position with 130 against roughly 600 trained and well equipped men, and that in four hours of fighting”. It is estimated from CNT-FAI records that at least six hundred and fifty Italian anarchists served in Spain. Hundreds of French and German anarchists made up the international section of the Durruti Column.

Nat Cohen and Sam Masters, clothing workers from Stepney, having cycled to the games, joined a raid on Mallorca that was foiled by the Italian Air Force, and on their return to Barcelona founded the Tom Mann Centuria. With them was the British Communist Party’s representative, Tom Wintringham, who proposed the formation of the International Brigades. In September Stalin approved the project and the Comintern began the recruitment and transport of volunteers by each of the national parties co-ordinated by the French Communist Party in Paris. A training camp was established at Albacete.

“To start the ball rolling, he ordered that 500-600 foreign Communists living as refugees in the USSR, personae non grata in their own countries, be rounded up and sent to fight in Spain. This action not only rid him of a long-term irritant, but also laid the foundation for the International Brigades.”

– Gary Kern: ‘A Death in Washington: Walter G Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror’.

The Tom Mann volunteers initially teamed up with the German Thaelmann and French Commune de Paris Centuria, two thirds of them died in November 1936 defending Madrid. Nat Cohen returned after being shot through the knee, his friend Sam Masters was killed at Brunete. Wintringham commanded the British Battalion at Jarama in February 1937 and was wounded twice. On his return from Spain in 1938 he was expelled from the party for having an affair, or perhaps for flirting with Trotskyism, being an advocate of the social revolution. He was instrumental in the formation of the British Home Guard during World War Two.

“Between October 1936 and September 1937, when they were finally incorporated into the Republican army as Spanish Foreign Legion units, seven International Brigades were headquartered in Albacete under the commissarship of the paranoid Comintern Secretary Andre Marty – the XIth, XIIth, XIIIth, XlVth, XVth, 129th and 150th. Each of these, led by a brigade commander and a political commissar, consisted of four battalions of mainly foreign volunteers organised by language group and ethnic background – to avoid problems of communication. An increasing number of Spaniards were conscripted into the Brigades as the war progressed, but there was no attempt to teach Brigaders Spanish until 1937, and even then few actually bothered to learn the language or even have much to do with their fellow Spanish Brigaders. There was actually a fair bit of racism, especially in the French and German IB Battalions.

The fact that so few Brigaders understood Spanish meant they were largely dependant on the overwhelmingly pro-Soviet and virulently anti-Trotskyist and anti-anarchist International Brigade press for information as to what was happening in Spain, especially relating to the events of May 1937 in Barcelona and the NKVD-led Stalinist repression both in the Soviet Union and in the Spanish rearguard. On February 16, 1937, the IB paper Soldado de la Republica stated that after the latest of the Moscow trials “the whole world can now see” that the Trotskyists were “agents of German-Japanese fascism…and an incredible system of provocations, sabotage and murder” who in Spain had been revealed as “the artificial mist that hid Franco’s Fifth Column… the unmasking of Trotskyists united all International Brigaders.”

Tragically, most ordinary International Brigades volunteers were unaware of the strategic geopolitical ‘great game’ they were engaged in on behalf of Stalin. They were idealists manipulated by cynics, lions led by vipers.

– Stuart Christie: ‘Call to Arms – Scots in Spain.’

In all about thirty-five thousand people from fifty-three countries joined the International Brigades and about five thousand fought with the other militias. The largest contingent were the Poles of the Dabrowski Battalion numbering about five thousand, mainly miners working in France and Belgium, they were among the first to see action arriving in Madrid on the 12th November*.

* This is where fact meets fiction, most historians give the 8th as the date of arrival of the XI I.B. deriving their accounts of the defence of Madrid from the Pravda correspondent Mikhail Koltsov, whose journalistic integrity was somewhat compromised by having Stalin breathing down his neck, more of this later.

The complexities of Irish politics intersected with the conflict in a unique fashion. Republican activist and writer Peadar O’Donnell attended the games and enlisted in the militia. The I.R.A.’s split between the conservative Catholic nationalists and the radical Irish Republican Congress applied to the war also. O’Donnell returned to advocate for the republic and the news that Irish fascist Eoin O’Duffy* was recruiting for the other side moved Irish socialists such as Frank Ryan to volunteer in the I.B.s. The Connolly column comprised Irish volunteers originally assigned to the British Battalion of the Fifteenth International Brigade who were unwilling to serve alongside British personnel of a military background, some of whom were suspected of having fought on the other side in the recent war of independence. These volunteers subsequently transferred to the North American Abraham Lincoln Battalion.

* ”The Irish fascists, led by Eoin O’Duffy, had travelled to Spain, stayed for six months, seen little or no combat and made military history by leaving for war with 700 men and returning with 703.”

– An Phoblacht: ‘Frank Ryan re-examined’ 9th December 2004.

Captain Jack White, who had organised the Citizens’ army during the Dublin Lockout, came from a bourgeois protestant family and hated the religious sectarianism of Irish politics, he had been decorated by the British Army in the Boer war but his personal morality caused him to draw a revolver on a fellow officer to protect a teenage captive. He travelled to Spain aged fifty-seven to set up a Red Cross field hospital and served in the Connolly column, after a dispute with Ryan he offered his services to the C.N.T. White had made a political journey through Irish Republicanism to the syndicalist socialism of James Connolly and the Industrial Workers of the World, then to the Communist Party, and he returned from Spain a confirmed anarchist.

Although the right-wing press and the Catholic Church supported Franco, the majority of ordinary people in Britain were solidly behind the republic, regarding the rebellion as an attack on democracy by the fascist movement which now menaced all of Europe.

‘The awful realisation that black fascism was on the march right across Europe created a strong desire to act. The march had started with Mussolini and had gained terrible momentum with Hitler and was being carried forward by Franco. For most young people there was a feeling of frustration, but some determined to do anything that seemed possible, even if it meant death, to try to stop the spread of fascism… This was Fascist progression. It was real and it had to be stopped.’

– Jack Jones, antifascist, Liverpool and Spain: From his introduction to ‘Apprentices of Freedom’ by Judith Cook.

Jones was repatriated with a serious shoulder wound sustained at the Battle of Ebro in 1938, and after the war assisted Spanish seamen stranded in British ports to emigrate to Argentina. He is best known as the General Secretary of the former Transport and General Workers’ Union.

Aid to Spain committees sprung up everywhere, collecting food, clothing, blankets, etc. and raising money for medical supplies; trade unions purchased ambulances and drove them across the Pyrenees The British Battalion of the 15th I. B. was formed in December. Britain’s Independent Labour Party recruited for the POUM, its co-affiliate in the ‘London Bureau’ or International Revolutionary Marxist Centre, its most famous volunteer being George Orwell. Two anarchists from Hillhead in Glasgow, Ethel MacDonald and Jane ‘Jenny’ Patrick were invited to Barcelona to help set up an English-language information service for CNT-FAI. With no money or visas they hitch-hiked across France at the end of October. MacDonald gave radio broadcasts in English and sent back articles to her local paper, the ‘Bellshill Speaker’ bringing the revolution and the May events to the wider world.

The Popular Front underwent yet another change of leadership on 4th September, when Largo Caballero, the president of the U.G.T. took over as prime minister; the Communist party got two ministries, education and agriculture. The new administration’s first act was to lose the border town of Irún:

“Irun fell, opening the gates to San Sebastián … They fought to the last cartridge, the men of Irun. When they had no more ammunition, they hurled packets of dynamite. When dynamite was gone, they rushed forward barehanded and tackled each their man, while the sixty times stronger enemy butchered them with bayonets. A girl held two armoured cars at bay for half an hour by hurling glycerine bombs. Then the Moroccans stormed the barricade of which she was the last living defender and tore her to pieces. The men of Fort Martial held three hundred foreign legionnaires at a distance for half a day by rolling rocks down the hill on which the old fort is perched.”

– Pierre Van Paasen:
Despatch to Federated Press 14th Sept 1936.
Quoted in ‘Spanish Revolution’
Volume 1 No. 3, 25th September 1936.

Starved of arms by Madrid, a delegation went to Barcelona and a consignment was duly shipped, but it had to pass through French territory and the French socialists confiscated it. The C.C.M.A.C. then set aside thirty thousand rounds of ammunition:

“They urgently requested a plane from the Madrid government, which promised to send them a Douglas. The plane never arrived. The boxes of ammunition sat in a pile in Barcelona, while the residents of Irún fired their last round, burned down the town, and fled to Hendaya. San Sebastián fell on September 15. General Mola’s troops now threatened the north as a whole. One might imagine that the government had sacrificed the north to defend the capital and, although that wouldn’t have been a good strategy, it would have at least mitigated government culpability for the failure. But that wasn’t the case. Talavera fell into Yagüe’s hands and his Regulars found an open path to Madrid.”

– Abel Paz: ‘Durruti in the Spanish Revolution’.

Having been a social democrat for most of his career*, Caballero had gravitated to Marxism-Leninism, just as the Comintern was abandoning class struggle in favour of ‘socialism in one country’. Caballero and his followers thought of him as the ‘Spanish Lenin’ and with the fervour of the newly-converted he went around banging on about the dictatorship of the proletariat. During his incarceration in 1935 he had declared, in a remarkably Leninist expression of megalomania: “You see here behind bars the future master of Spain!” After his release he had actively sought a merger with the Communist party, his delusions of grandeur convincing him that his would be the dominant party in the relationship.

* And a collaborator with the dictatorship, overseeing compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes.

Although the P.C.E. was still tiny, the Communists’ well-practiced facility at propaganda and intrigue would easily get the better of him; first the executive of the Young Socialists was invited to Russia, wined and dined. In December 1935 the P.C.E. dissolved its trade union federation, the C.G.T.U. whose isolation stood in the way of the Comintern’s new popular front policy. Caballero accepted the Communist unions into the U.G.T., giving them a nucleus from which to expand their influence. The Socialist and Communist youth organisations were unified in May 1936. With the outbreak of war, he was dismayed to find his supporters in both party and union transferring their allegiance to Moscow in droves.

“It is wonderful, for those of us who were outside the Communist Party until a few weeks ago, to contemplate how, in the very midst of the revolutionary struggle, one organisation that was for many years a powerful political force and had almost a monopoly of the political leadership of the Spanish proletariat was disintegrating, ruined by its mistakes, and how another organization, composed in the early days of little more than a handful or men, but guided to perfection by Marxism and Leninism, could become after 18 July the real force in the struggle against fascism and the real directing force of the Spanish masses.”

– Francisco Moontiel to the central committee of the Communist party, March 1937, quoted in ‘The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution’ by Burnett Bolloten.

In his memoirs, Caballero describes the Russian ambassador Marcel Rosenberg as “wrapped around my legs like a serpent”. Whilst they publicly flattered Caballero, the Stalinists found his leftist rhetoric annoying as they were busy seducing a terrified middle class. In such turbulent times many Spaniards who had no prior political affiliations, or whose sympathies lay with the right, felt the need to acquire a party membership for protection, and the Communists promised them continuity. They were going to use the right wing of his own party against him, but in September 1936 with the Second Republic and Popular Front utterly discredited they still needed Caballero’s leftist rhetoric to persuade the masses that government was worth bothering with at all.

“Largo Caballero proved incapable of gauging the future shape of politics, the ebb and flow of the intrigues of the political parties, his own party included. And this ‘Spanish Lenin’ served as a bridge into the most tragic phase of the Spanish revolution. At the head of a government broadly representative of the people, Largo Caballero injected some prestige into the devastated institutions of the republic, rejuvenated the state, and carried off the hitherto impossible missions of militarising the army, disarming the rearguard and reorganising the security forces, which were placed at the service of the government. Later, he vanished from sight like a comet only to be replaced by the counter-revolution and the dictatorship of one party.”

– José Peirats Valls, antifascist: ‘The C.N.T. in the Spanish Revolution’ Vol. 1. 1987.

“At that time, we called it a popular revolution. All of us knew that it was the establishment of socialism in Spain. That was clear. Where were the big capitalists, the large landowners, and the apparatus of the bourgeois State? They had all disappeared. Hence, the entire discussion appeared absurd and byzantine to me.”

– Santiago Carrillo Solares: Spain Tomorrow, Paris, 1974

Caballero gave up on the merger idea, but by the end of 1936 Spain’s gold was in Russia and for the sake of keeping his job, this pointless bureaucrat would dance to Stalin’s tune until he had outlived his usefulness. His naivety would lead to the defeat of the republic, his exile and imprisonment in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He barely survived the Second World War; the majority of his comrades were of course executed by Franco.

While Rosenberg was leg-humping Caballero, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko was blowing in Garcia Oliver’s ear. The Soviet consul in Barcelona was a hero of the Bolshevik revolution that Stalin was keen to be rid of. He led the ‘assault’* on the Winter Palace in 1917, but was tainted by his association with Trotsky and the left opposition. Stalin had posted him around the world to keep him out of the way, and Barcelona was to be his last assignment. Expressing his enthusiasm for revolutionary Catalonia he persuaded Oliver to indulge in what Bolloten called ‘the Grand Camouflage’, denying the fact of social revolution to fool the foreign bourgeoisie, but also guaranteeing the world’s proletariat would never miss what it hadn’t seen.

* He broke in through a window, taking with him a few Red Guards whose main interest was the Imperial wine cellar, and arrested the provisional government.

The relationship between CNT-FAI and the state reached its tipping point in September 1936. They felt the C.C.M.A.C. was not fit for purpose and the Catalan regional administration was re-constituted with their support as the ‘Defence Council of the Generalitat’. This was sold to the movement as another smokescreen to disguise the diffusion of power to the workers’ committees, but the parties’ representatives all spoke of ‘strong government’, capable of imposing its decrees on them. Oliver was leaning toward Escorza’s suggestion of the 20th July; since they could no longer do away with the Generalitat, they should take it over. The bottom-up structure of neighbourhood and ward committees would give way to a top-down structure with commissions and councils for everything. The revolutionary momentum was such that it would be months before this could be achieved, so a push-pull strategy was employed, starving collectives of government credit, imposing militarisation on the militia by withholding pay whilst choking off food and support to their dependants, offering rank and privilege to anyone who would accept it. The CNT-FAI councillors avoided using the ‘G word’ themselves but were now behaving like representatives, not of the anarchists, but of an abstract concept of anarchy, to be pursued at some indeterminate time that receded ever further into the future. Their role was to justify the decisions of government to the people rather than present the people’s demands to government, and they would only be needed for so long as the workers exerted actual power over production and the conduct of the war. They had been persuaded that the social revolution could follow a swift victory over fascism, however the Popular Front government was in no hurry; its priority was to re-establish its governance while there was still fuck all to govern. Using the promise of arms and a united front against the fascists, the politicians would dupe the unions into propping up what remained of the state while the militias weakened for lack of supplies. The dinner had eaten the dog.

But for a handful of loyalist troops and paramilitaries, the vast majority of antifascist fighters at that time were union members, and the unions were running production. It seemed logical to federate all the workers’ committees and militia under one umbrella, not a government as such, but a co-ordinating body, retaining dual power and minimising the divisive effects of the political parties. Therefore, a national plenum resolved to form a joint national defence council with the U.G.T. and the necessary overtures were made. However, control of the latter was being contested between Caballero’s Leninists and the right-wing (or moderate if you like) social democrats and Stalinists. Note how the advocates of ‘war before revolution’ were most occupied with political manoeuvres. No response was received, which left only two options: ‘go for everything’ or bargain for representation in the cabinet, the entry of the Catalan regional committee into the Generalitat had ruled out the first one.

A parallel power struggle and consolidation was taking place in the nationalist zone, the bizarre death of Sanjurjo having decapitated the movement. The regular army’s allegiance had always been more to its aristocratic officers than any concept of Spain, so each general set himself up as a feudal warlord within his occupied territory. Mola and Quiepo de Llano were right-wing republicans and the latter a freemason, distrusted by the traditionalists. The most effective military formation was Franco’s Army of Africa, and apart from two rival right-wing militias, the Falange and the Requete (Carlists), most of their troops were foreign mercenaries, Moroccans, Germans and Italians, whose paymaster Adolf Hitler favoured Franco. Sanjurjo had been the Carlists’ voice in the army and the Falange leader* was a prisoner of the Republic. By synthesising the trappings of Catholicism, monarchy and fascism Franco declared himself, Napoleon-like, head of the embryonic nationalist state in October, affecting the title Caudillo, a crude Spanish translation of Fuhrer. The factions of the right had little in common politically, beyond love of authority and hatred of the Working Class. A split in the Falange culminated in April 1937 in a gunfight at its headquarters in Salamanca, as soon as they selected a new leader Franco amalgamated all the parties into one with himself at the helm.

* Primo de Rivera Jr was executed in Alicante during the siege of Madrid, on the day the German-Japanese Axis was established. It might have been more politically astute to send him home to stir up trouble.

Here’s fucking weird: the commander-in-chief of the mediaevalist Carlist Requetés who rejoiced in the name Francisco Javier de Borbón Parma y de Braganza, and sported one of the daftest hats I’ve ever seen, had a row with Franco and got kicked out of Spain halfway through. He only ended up in the Maquis during WW2 fighting alongside exiled Spanish anarchists! Completely irrelevant, I just thought you’d like to know that.

Along with right-wing socialists and bourgeoisie, a great many republican army officers joined the communist party, it being the only way to assure continuity of supply once the flow of war materiel was controlled by the U.S.S.R. The Communists established the Fifth Regiment to absorb these officers and train new ones for their Popular Army. Recruitment was open to everyone but promotion depended on joining the party. Whereas the militia regarded soldiers purely as technical specialists, the Fifth Regiment offered them rank, parades, pomp and saluting. Their posturing was intended as a provocation to the anarchosyndicalists, who instead regarded it with amused detachment; a year later, Emma Goldman wrote:

“On my first visit to Spain in September 1936, nothing surprised me so much as the amount of political freedom I found everywhere. True it did not extend to fascists; but outside of these deliberate enemies of the revolution and the emancipation of the workers in Spain, everyone of the anti-fascist front enjoyed political freedom which hardly existed in any of the so called European democracies. The one party that made the utmost use of this was the PSUC, the Stalinist party in revolutionary Spain. [Catalonia] Their radio and loudspeakers filled the air. Their daily marches in military formation with their flags waving were flaunted in everybody’s face. They seemed to take a special pleasure in marching past the house of the Regional Committee as if they wanted to make the CNT-FAI aware of their determination to strike the blow when they will attain to complete power. This was obvious to anyone among the foreign delegates and comrades who had come to help in the anti-fascist struggle. Not so our Spanish comrades. They made light of the communist brazenness. They insisted that this circus claptrap could not decide the revolutionary struggle, and that they themselves had more important things to do than waste their time in idle display. It seemed to me that the Spanish comrades had little understanding of mass psychology which needs flag-wagging, speeches, music and demonstrations — that while the CNT-FAI however, were concentrated on their constructive tasks, and fighting on the various fronts, their communist allies made hay while their sun shone. They have since proved that they knew what they were about.”

– Emma Goldman: ‘Political persecution in Republican Spain’, from ‘Spain and the World’, London, 10th December 1937.

On 15th September the Secretary of the International Workers’ Association, Pierre Besnard visited Barcelona with a detailed plan to stir up a revolt in Morocco by freeing Abd-el-Krim, who was still a prisoner of France. He had obtained a mandate from French socialists opposed to the non-intervention policy to call on the (French) Popular Front government to help by declaring Morocco independent. After a fruitless meeting with Caballero* he warned his friends that collaboration with the government was endangering the revolution. Durruti asked him to procure arms as a matter of urgency.

* His audience with the P.M. followed shortly after a visit from Rosenberg. Stalin was furious with Antonov-Ovseenko for encouraging the project; unrest in the colonies would most likely bring down the French government, and was bound to scare the British.

Oliver had offered military aid to his contacts in the Moroccan Action Committee, however they didn’t consider that a unilateral declaration of independence would do much good as the Germans and Italians could just invade them directly. They wanted a form of regional autonomy recognised by the Spanish and French governments. Such a legalistic approach hardly amounted to spreading the social revolution, which the anarchists hoped would suck in both France and Portugal, and eventually show the Italian and German proletariat the way forward.* It would also make Stalin’s position untenable, and might prompt the Soviet workers to finally finish what they had started in 1917. Nevertheless the C.C.A.M.C. ratified the agreement and the Moroccans were sent to Madrid; as anticipated, the French vetoed the arrangement. Caballero did not consider any document signed in Barcelona to be binding. There would be no formal autonomy but the Republic would provide arms and money to fight Franco in the protectorate; however the M.A.C. would not act without political guarantees and the project went nowhere.

* For this reason the I.W.A. never made any concerted effort to recruit overseas volunteers, believing that militants would be best occupied in agitating against their own governments.

On the 28th September Besnard reported back to Oliver and De Santillan that he had located Belgian arms manufacturers who were prepared to supply the republican government; at last they could properly equip the Aragon front*. Caballero promised to release 1.6 billion pesetas in gold to make the purchase, of which a third would go to Catalonia and Aragon, he was of course bluffing; if the Russians lost control over the supply chain they would immediately take their ball home.

* Aragon had become the focus of libertarian activity since the re-establishment of government in Catalonia. In Aragon alone the political parties exerted no influence and the public assemblies were sovereign. The P.S.U.C. was desperate to sabotage collectivisation and resorted to pillage, so the Defence Council of Aragon was formed on 5th of October.

By signing the non-intervention agreement and officially prohibiting the export of war materiel to Spain, Stalin had made his assistance entirely conditional on getting his own way. Rosenberg spelt it out to Caballero: Production was to be controlled by the state not the unions; private property to be respected and land expropriations stopped; the militia must be replaced by a traditional army with ranks and regulations; the workers’ councils were to be dissolved, especially organisations such as the Federation of Collectives of Levant, which grew more than half of Spain’s oranges and was exporting its produce on its own terms, and the surly Defence Council of Aragon; ‘Trotskyists’ must be excluded from governing bodies and their organisations suppressed. If all these things were done, the U.S.S.R. would convince the bourgeois democracies they had nothing to fear, and side with the Republic. Communist-inspired government propaganda of the time has it that the unions are fighting for the Second Republic and the autonomous efforts of the workers are merely implementing the policies of the democratically elected Popular Front! That the Confederation, feeling itself abandoned by the international proletariat, continued to hedge its bets, perhaps explains why these narratives persist to this day. On the 7th October the Soviet delegate to the Non-intervention Committee announced that his government would consider itself released from the agreement unless fascist violations ceased immediately.

The finance minister Juan Negrin had his own Russian shadow in the shape of the Comintern economist Stashevsky, who was secretly grooming the right-wing socialist to be Caballero’s replacement. Negrin’s political views could be summed up by the word centralisation, his disdain for anarchists, Catalanists, and Basque separatists, coupled with his ambition and circumstantial ethics made him a perfect tool. The Carabineros, a police force dedicated to his ministry, were only meant to deal with customs and excise matters and to guard the treasury; Negrin built them into his own private army, equipped with the newest weapons.

The Bank of Spain in Madrid held the second largest gold reserve in the world; about two hundred tons of which had already been exchanged for currency in Paris, drawing howls of protest and some legal challenges from the nationalist zone. Their allies overseas would attempt to block further trading. Since Caballero could not be trusted, a plan was hatched for the railway workers union and the Land and Freedom Column* to remove it to Barcelona, so they could deal directly. Durruti travelled incognito to Madrid to implement the plan. De Santillan lost his nerve at the last minute and consulted the National Committee of the C.N.T. which panicked, fearing a rift between Barcelona and Madrid, and the idea was shelved. The hostility was already there however; the Catalan weapons industry badly needed investment in new plant and tooling, but received no help from the centre.

* Catalan anarchists deployed in Madrid, mainly FAI members; ‘Land and Freedom’ being the title of the FAI’s periodical.

Two weeks later, without asking anyone else, Spain’s president, prime minister and finance minister sent more than five hundred tons of gold to Moscow for ‘safe keeping’, by arrangement with the Machiavellian secret police general Aleksandr Orlov. Spain’s treasury contained many pieces of numismatic and antique value far above their gold price, including the spoils from their former colonies. However no inventory of these items exists as the entire cargo was weighed in as bullion, one can only speculate where it all ended up. On its arrival in Moscow, Stalin threw a banquet for the Politburo and boasted “the Spaniards will never see their gold again, as one never sees one’s own ears”. The money was supposed to be held on account for arms supplied, but Russia made a vast profit on the deal and it was later revealed, had been supplying both sides, flogging oil to the Nationalists via Italy. They charged the Republic twice the market exchange rate for rouble to dollar transactions, and of course the value of the peseta collapsed as soon as the transfer became known, by the end of the war the account would be in the red, according to the Russians. Henceforth, the Kremlin called the shots, just as Stalinism entered its most devious and paranoid phase.

“As early as September 1936 the Communists, under the direction of the Russian NKVD representative, Alexander Orlov, began filling prisons with hundreds of their – not necessarily the Republican government’s – enemies, torturing and killing many of them.”

– Herbert L. Matthews (New York Times correspondent):
‘Half of Spain Died’

Orlov’s official mission was to direct espionage and subversion in the nationalist zone, but his main quarry was closer at hand. The Soviets saw ‘Trotskyists’ everywhere, considering them far more dangerous than the fascists. In fact the term ‘Trotskyist’, which was not in use prior to the Great Purge, could be used in a number of ways: a former associate of Trotsky – in other words any Bolshevik; a present associate of Trotsky or an affiliate to his Fourth International, these were very few and far between in revolutionary Spain, confined to a tiny group calling itself the ‘Bolshevik-Leninists’, anyone to the left of Stalin, especially the POUM; or a hypothetical conspirator prepared to betray the republic out of hatred of the U.S.S.R. It replaced ‘social fascist’ as the catch-all pejorative for anyone that refused to obey the Comintern.

“Stalin, Yezhov, and Beria distrusted Soviet participants in the Spanish war. Military advisors like Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, journalists like Koltsov were open to infection by the heresies, especially Trotsky’s, prevalent among the Republic’s supporters. NKVD agents sent to Spain were therefore keener on abducting and murdering anti-Stalinists among Republican leaders and International Brigade commanders than on fighting Franco. The defeat of the Republic, in Stalin’s eyes, was caused not by the NKVD’s diversionary efforts, but by the treachery of the heretics.”

– Donald Rayfield: ‘Stalin and his Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him’. 2004.

Still the POUM organ La Batalla declined to mince its words:

“In short, what really interests Stalin is not the fate of the Spanish or international proletariat, but the defence of the Soviet government in accordance with the policy of alliance established by some states against others.”

– Editorial, La Batalla: 15 November 1936.

The Soviet consulate in Barcelona took the diplomatically unorthodox step of issuing a press release accusing the paper of being “in the pocket of international fascism”, this appeared even in Solidaridad Obrera. The POUM sealed its fate when it proposed Catalonia grant political asylum to Trotsky. The latter had taken a keen interest in Spanish politics, and desperately wanted to test his theories, but was highly critical of his former secretary Andreu Nin especially over the decision to enter the Generalitat. In November 1936, at a meeting of N.K.V.D. officials in Valencia, Orlov and Rosenberg took the decision to exclude and liquidate the entire organisation. Orlov defected to Canada in July 1938 just as he was about to be purged, it is likely his detailed knowledge of Stalin’s crimes protected him from assassination; he wrote to the dictator personally promising to keep it all to himself provided he and his family were left in peace. Rosenberg and Antonov-Ovseenko were both recalled to Moscow and shot.

By mid-October the non-intervention agreement lay in tatters and the Russians accused Portugal of breaking it, as they were desperate to avoid antagonising Hitler and Mussolini. The first Russian aid ships started to arrive, by stealth and in disguise; the first to dock in Barcelona contained mainly tinned food. In January 1937 a ship delivered five hundred and sixty-eight tons of butter, such an unfamiliar product to the Catalans that even low-level bureaucrats convinced themselves that ‘butter’ was code for some form of ordinance. Some of the small arms were obsolescent and worn out, with six different rifle calibres in use, making ammunition supply a lottery. The most modern, and welcome weapon was the T26 tank; all the best kit went to the Communist columns and the Fifth Army. Stalin would not risk having soviet personnel paraded in front of the non-intervention committee and had told the brigade commanders to “Stay out of artillery range”. The Russian pilots would only fly over Republican territory.

“All villagers, male and female, will make themselves available to the delegate comrades who have taken up arms in service of the community, and will endeavour to bring all useable goods to the castle. All those who need anything will be attended to. Money is hereby abolished and libertarian communism is proclaimed in this village.”

– The Committee. Mora de Rubielos, 18th August 1936.

The illustrious and much-maligned Iron Column was raised in the anarchist communes of the Levant, its ranks swelled by convicts it liberated from prison as it passed. Characterised as ‘uncontrollables’ by the republicans, its members were totally committed to social revolution; it received no help from the Republic and had to see to its own provisioning. The local unions and peasant collectives supported it with donations of clothing, agricultural produce and even cash. It had its own newspaper, the ‘Firing Line’ and a radio station that broadcast in five languages.

“The Iron Column was made up of peasants and industrial workers. Its basic unit was the century, which was in turn divided into groups. The peasants formed their own units with people living in the same village. Within a month of its establishment, the Iron Column had twelve thousand enlisted members, but we only had enough equipment to arm around three thousand fighters. …

… Most of the inmates were in San Miguel de los Reyes for criminal offences but there was also the odd comrade convicted for bank robbery or something like that. The opening up of the prison was prompted by principle and nothing more. It was an attempt to do away with something we regarded as a product of bourgeois rule: the inmates were victims of society and they had to be given a chance, at which point most of them joined the Iron Column, fighting and conducting themselves in an extraordinarily brave and intrepid fashion.”

– Roque Santamaria.

After two months in the field they had received only a thousand rifles from the state; eighty percent of their weaponry having been captured in battle. They found themselves in a similar state to the columns in Aragon, within sight of their goal but unable to proceed. They were short of spares, and as always, ammunition, so a party returned to Valencia to sort out the rearguard. The Civil Guards were persuaded to disarm and valuables expropriated to buy supplies. The militia built a huge bonfire in the main square of police files, land registers, and other legal documents. Such conduct was horrifying to the Stalinists, who portrayed them as common bandits, and embarrassing for the C.N.T. national committee, which was at the time negotiating representation in the government.

Tensions were inflamed by the shooting in Valencia of an Iron column delegate in mysterious circumstances by ‘People’s Antifascist Guards’ (G.P.A.). On the 30th October, his funeral was attended by members of all three confederal columns fighting on the Teruel front. The militia came under machine-gun fire from the offices of the P.C.E. leaving over a hundred dead or wounded. They met to discuss retaliation, but on receiving news of a potential breach of the front, the survivors returned to their posts at 3 a.m.* Their response was a manifesto calling for the disbandment of the reactionary Civil Guard, and for all paramilitaries at the service of the state to be sent to the front immediately; with the battle raging all around, why were there people at the rear holding guns to point at fellow workers, and what need did anarchists have of courts and prisons?

* Those writers who like to accuse the anarchist columns of indiscipline would do well to remember this incident.

The politicians’ most pressing task was to recover their monopoly on violence, by turning the workers’ militias into a conventional ‘Popular Army’ with a hierarchical command structure and pay differentials, proposed by the Communists and established by government decree on 30th October. Their talent for bureaucracy, and the anarchists’ disdain for it, rapidly gave the Communists root and branch control of the armed forces. Political commissars would be attached to every brigade and battalion, almost all were P.C.E. members.

The editorial in Solidaridad Obrera commented:

“One of the quintessential aspects of war is the military code. The revolution has smashed to smithereens the lengthy code worked out by Alfonso’s brasshats and entirely abolished the phenomenon of barrack-drilled masses consonant with a servility which the capitalist regime instituted for economic reasons. We are not familiar with the contents of the new military code worked out by those individuals whom the antifascist organisations have appointed to positions of responsibility. In our estimation, the code which the revolution needs at the present juncture in the war must be of clearly revolutionary derivation.”

The following day it was clarified that the old code was indeed being restored; “until such time as a new code for the militias may be devised.”

“No. Militarisation of the militias, mobilisation of the proletariat and of all the antifascist population cannot and must not mean the resurrection of the old army. Let us devise new solutions, a new concept of duty and honour, far-removed from the rigid, aristocratic code which, were it something solid, might serve to manure the land.”

– Solidaridad Obrera: 31 October 1936.

Knowing full well that its members would not accept conscription into the army it instructed anyone finding themself called up to “Immediately go to the C.N.T. barracks or to your unions or defence committees, where you will receive the militiaman’s card for your incorporation into the Confederal Columns.”

The town of Barbastro had been held for the Republic by troops under Colonel Villalba, who took charge of the initial assault on Huesca using anarchist and POUM columns. Villalba and Durruti clashed from the outset, as a professional soldier Villalba favoured militarisation; he set up his own War Committee there, and insisted on keeping it independent of the other columns. In this he received the enthusiastic support of the Communists. It cannot be claimed that that the militia were ineffective; in August, at Villalba’s request the Durruti Column sent José Mira with several centurias to attack Siétamo. In three days they had occupied the site and then left it under the Colonel’s control, it was swiftly re-taken; the rebels fortified the town with machine-guns and an artillery battery. In early September, Villalba decided to try again, and Mira’s centurias returned. The siege began on the 4th September, against fierce resistance from infantry, Falangists, and Civil Guards and hampered by the German air-raids launched from Zaragoza. The militia re-captured Siétamo in house-to-house fighting and also took the enemy fortifications in surrounding Loporzano, Estrecho Quinto, and Monte Aragón.

The existence of two war committees was the fault-line on the Aragon front, subsequent attempts to unify the command under a General Staff faltered because of course the militias’ War Committee represented its members, whereas the Communists could only act on orders from their party. A propaganda war was being fought on that front for external consumption that had to play down the successes of workers acting autonomously*. Rovira’s POUM column were forced to abandon their command post at Leciñena to the fascists because ammunition requested from Villalba was not forthcoming, the P.S.U.C. forces close by stood aloof considering it the POUM’s responsibility. This breakthrough compromised the entire front so the Durruti column immediately counter-attacked; their international section, led by the French artillery Captain Berthomieu overreached itself and took the town of Perdiguera, where they became trapped:

“Berthomieu and forty of his men had been too daring. They advanced impetuously and, as a result, separated from the rest of the Column. The fascists realized this and surrounded them with their Moorish cavalry.

Cornered in several houses, the forty men faced a force twenty times larger and soon ran out of ammunition. Two militiamen, Ridel and Charpentier, took on the dangerous task of slipping through the Moroccans to warn Durruti. They were the only ones among the forty who entered Perdiguera to survive. The rest died fighting. Among the dead were Berthomieu, Giralt, Trontin, Bourdom, Emile Cottin, Georgette (a young militant from Paris’s Revista Anarquista) Gertrudis (a German Trotskyist youth), and two nurses whose names are unknown.

We improved our lines by eight kilometres, but the territory gained didn’t compensate for the Column’s losses. Berthomieu alone was worth more than all that.”

– Mathieu Corman: ¡Salud, camaradas! Paris: Ed. Tribord, 29th June, 1937.

* Villalba was later put in charge of the confederal militia defending Malaga, with catastrophic results.

The militarisation decree met with fierce opposition within the columns; the workers had not taken up arms to defend the Republic, even against fascism, or for the right to choose who was going to order them about. They had endured one or other form of brutal economic and political regime all their lives and had consciously left that world behind. Even the POUM with its essentially Leninist ideology failed to impose an authoritarian structure on its column, as its members had also been imbued with libertarian ideas. Durruti received the news the same day he learned Caballero had gone back on his word:

“…This decision by the government has had a deplorable effect. It is absolutely devoid of any sense of reality. There is an irreconcilable contrast between that mentality and that of the militias… We know that one of these attitudes has to vanish in the face of the other one.”

– Buenaventura Durruti to L’Espagne Antifasciste November 1936.

He was so pissed off he opted to take his chances on a nocturnal mission with the ‘sons of the night’ guerrilla group, penetrating Zaragoza to liberate some confederals who had been in hiding since the coup, and to avenge their comrades of the Internationals.

While the politicians manoeuvred and intrigued, the Confederation of the centre assembled three thousand workers into the Espana Libre column to defend Madrid, but the government refused to arm them. By the end of October, the fascists were 20 miles from the capital; they finally received their kit on the 3rd November, with shells falling on the outskirts of the city.

Back in the rear, exhausted from overwork and juggling contradictory agendas, Oliver was losing touch with reality and began to advocate militarisation. His revolutionary credentials were impeccable, having lived an insurrectionary life and spent seven years in jail under the dictatorship. To be fair, the fact that he had given up his place in the front line to perform this political role will have invested it with an exaggerated sense of importance; I don’t doubt for a moment he would rather have been shooting fascists. Perhaps the rejection of his anti-collaboration strategy pushed him to the other pole. On 4th November he accepted a post in the central government as one of four ‘anarchist ministers’, two each from the C.N.T. and FAI, these were pure political appointees chosen by the national secretary with no mandate whatsoever, representing nobody but themselves. The lifelong outlaw became justice minister.

“From now on there will be no more talk of liberty, but rather submission to ‘our government’, the only agency capable of directing the war and economic life.

The confederal organisation has secured four ministries for itself, yet none of them correspond to the arguments raised in support of the creation of a National Defence Council.

Four second-rate ministries will now be filled by four individuals who have never shown any interest in the matters they must now concern themselves with. We will see a member of the Weaving and Textile Union, surely with much experience in matters of war, in the Ministry of Justice; a public speaker and writer on matters of the heart and social issues in the Ministry of Health; and a professional propagandist in the ministry of Trade.

In summary: instead of departments there are ministries, and instead of experts in their fields with their own initiatives, there are incompetent, inept politicians.”

– Linea de Fuego: 4th November 1936.

At 9:30 that evening Durrutti spoke from the CNT-FAI radio transmitter in Barcelona; his speech was heard throughout Spain, but he addressed it to the “Workers of Cataluña!” The Generalitat’s council of defence had asked him for one of his famous orations to raise the morale of those defending Madrid, a piece of inspiring propaganda for the Republic, it didn’t play quite as they intended. No complete transcript of the broadcast exists, as it was censored and redacted even by the anarchist press at the time. The Durruti Column had voted to reject militarisation; three days earlier he had signed a statement to that effect on behalf of its War Committee, on the day the despised military code was to take effect. He called upon the unions to hold their leaders to account for the organisation of the Catalan economy. He demanded the rearguard stop squabbling over politics and get behind the workers’ militias, re-affirming their commitment to social revolution and anti-militarism. Two weeks later he was dead.

“I do not feel like writing any more letters so that the comrades or the son of a militiaman can have one more crust of bread or pint of milk, while there are Ministers who do not have to pay to eat and have no limits on their expenditures. … Fascism represents and is in effect social inequality, and if you do not want those of us who are fighting to confuse those of you in the rearguard with our enemies, then do your duty. We are waging war now to crush the enemy at the front, but is this the only enemy? No. Anyone among us who is opposed to the revolutionary conquests is also an enemy, and we must crush them as well.

… They’re mistaken if they think that the militarisation decree will scare us and impose an iron discipline on us. You are mistaken, Ministers, with your militarisation decree. Since you have so much to say about iron discipline, then I say to you, come to the front with me. At the front we do not accept any discipline, because we are conscious of doing our duty. And you will see our order and our organisation. Then we shall return to Barcelona and we shall ask you about your discipline, your order, and your control, which does not exist.”

– Quoted by Guillamon, Paz and others in various translations.

Companys response was to call an emergency session of the Generalitat the following morning. The topic was how to get the Working Class to submit to their remote control, the precise opposite of Durruti’s message, which had scoffed at their pretentions and reminded them of the precarity of their positions. The anarchist delegates could do little more than apologise for the delay.

Madrid came under siege and the new government promptly fled to Valencia, to the disbelief and disgust of the workers, who were set to fight to the death. The four were unanimous in their opposition to the move, then gave in to avoid a ‘crisis’, already thinking like politicians. They had only been invited in to endorse Caballero’s stampede from the enemy and as bait to draw in the Durruti Column. The government expected Madrid to fall and wanted the anarchists implicated in both the retreat and the defeat. This is the point where the gulf between the leaders and the membership became unbridgeable; no one was going to take orders from those who were not prepared to share their fate, and CNT-FAI found itself astride this chasm.

As women and children built barricades under the fascist bombardment, a herd of fleeing ministers took to the road at nightfall on the 6th. In their haste the departing Ministry of War omitted to tell anyone where the ammunition reserves were stored. Once more the unions were left holding the baby and partisan rivalries shelved as their defence committees mobilised every worker capable of standing upright, taking to the barricades and rooftops with whatever they could find. Resistance was co-ordinated by the waiter Eduardo Val. Those militians who had fallen back to the city felt they had nowhere left to run and their grim determination proved too much even for the German tanks; the preferred method of stopping one was to leap in front at the last moment and throw dynamite. The technique is credited to the seaman Antonio Coll, who accounted for many monsters in this way before being crushed beneath one; nevertheless, his example was eagerly followed. It required only a steady hand, a cool head and utter disregard for one’s personal safety. The Espana Libre’s column delegate was cut down by machine-gun fire after putting a Panzer on its back.

Madrid was nominally left in the hands of a defence Junta, from which the POUM had to be excluded on Rosenberg’s orders – or there would be no Russian tanks. Caballero wrote instructions for Generals Miaja and Pozas, and put them in sealed envelopes marked with: “Do not open before 06:00 on 7th November.” Miaja couldn’t wait and opened his at 23:00 on the 6th, only to find he had been given the wrong envelope; Pozas was nowhere to be found. The convoy of vehicles had to pass the checkpoint at Tarancón, about forty kilometres out, controlled by an anarchist militian named Villanueva*, already a veteran of several battles, who had instructions to prevent anyone taking weapons or other essentials out of the capital. The bureaucrats were rudely told to return to their posts. Cipriano Mera was going the other way, finding the government under arrest in Tarancón, he phoned Val, who had to come down and persuade the militia to let them go; eventually they were allowed to proceed but disarmed and treated with derision. Among the detainees was General Pozas, so Miaja got his orders. The Mayor Pedro Rico was turned back however, and since he could neither show his face in the city again, nor pass the militia, he hid in the Mexican embassy where all the other refugees were fascists. They watched with glee as his friends struggled to stuff the terrified man into the boot of the car that he hoped would take him to safety.

* José Villanueva returned to defend Madrid, he died at Teruel.

The desertion of the capital by the political class may have been its salvation, reviving the spirit of July. Vicente Rojo Lluch, who was to become the Republican Chief of Staff, wrote the following:

“Along with the government went the pessimism, the apprehension, the discord and the defeatist attitude of certain selfish elites … as well as – why not also say it? – The panic that hundreds of people could not overcome, even though they held positions of great responsibility. In Madrid, along with the expected victims there emerged the beginnings of a genuine unity of belief rooted in the people; that feared and insulted people. And this belief yielded an absolute, epic and anonymous selflessness, as well as truth … The long, anguished night of defeat seemed to vanish with those who fled, and the light of a new dawn began to shine for those who deserved to triumph.

– Vicente Rojo: ‘Asi Fue la Defensa de Madrid’

A career soldier of a military family (and a conservative Catholic who throughout the conflict retained the admiration of Franco) General Rojo had no political point to make, his future depended only on getting the job done. In fact both Rojo and Miaja had belonged to the right-wing Spanish Military Union, which had conspired against the Republic, and could have easily ended up on the other side, instead they joined the Communist Party. I’m not one to dwell on the military mindset, but as they grind humanity in their mill they see it at its best and its worst. For the soldier, as for the engineer, a thing will either work or it won’t. The “feared and insulted people” were on it:

“Madrid, free of ministers, commissars and tourists, feels more confident in its struggle … The people – the Madrid Working Class – has no need of these tourists who have left for Levant and Catalonia. Madrid, free of ministers, will be fascism’s tomb. Forward, militians! Long live Madrid without government! Long live the social revolution!”

– C.N.T. Madrid radio broadcast, quoted by Paz and others in various translations.

If Madrid was glad to see the back of the politicians, they were no more welcome in Valencia with their senseless drain on resources, and their meddling threatened operations on the Teruel front.

“For the women, for the children, for the aged and the wounded of Madrid: our homes and our bread are there for the asking. But for the cowards and deserters who drive around and show off their weapons: our disdain. Comrades, we must shun them and make their lives impossible!”

– C.N.T. Levante federation November 1936.

The nationalists had left the road to Valencia open in the expectation that the abandoned city would simply evacuate rather than fight; they were already planning their victory parades and their mass executions. Franco announced: “We have Madrid in our clutches. We dominate all the high ground. No defence is possible. If they had any inkling of military science they would not even attempt a pointless resistance.” The population knew what was in store for them if they lost, and nobody expected to survive, only to die fighting. The C.N.T. propagandist Eduardo de Guzman gives a breathtaking account of the first forty-eight hours of Madrid’s defence.

“Madrid’s defence is today in the workers’ hands alone. The government is on the road to Valencia. No one remains at the Ministry of War. Miaja has been issued with orders and invested with powers but, as yet, there is no telling whom he can rely on, nor what he can do. He stands ready to die at his post: but until tomorrow he will be able to do absolutely nothing. And tomorrow may well be too late. …

… Throughout the night, the fighting is very hard. For the first time the advance of the fascist tanks is hesitant. For the first time, the Moorish cavalry is swept aside en bloc. For the first time, loot-hungry legionnaires know terror and panic. There are no battle-hardened enemies in the districts of Madrid. But steadfast at their posts, dying and killing, there are the men from the unions.

No general directs this battle. If any of the handful of military left behind at the Ministry of War had been asked who was in charge of the fighting, he would not have been able to answer. Defending Madrid are a few columns mauled and demoralised by the fallbacks, short of manpower and low on determination. It cannot be they are denying the Moorish hordes’ control of the city today. Only the unions will have an answer to the question. Only the unions, the ateneos and the slum districts know the provenance of these thousands of heroes. Only one man, Eduardo Val, held the reins of Madrid’s defence in his hands through the night.”

– Eduardo de Guzman: ‘Madrid Rojo y Negro.’

Franco trumpeted the legend of his fifth column to undermine morale, while the Communists used it to undermine their political opponents.

“On November 6 and the night of November 7-8, 1936, when the fate of Madrid hung in the balance, about a thousand prisoners were taken from the Model Prison and massacred in Madrid and surrounding villages …. I believe, myself, that the orders came from the Comintern agents in Madrid because I know that the sinister Vittorio Vidali [alias Carlos Contreras in Spain, alias Enea Sormenti in the United States] spent the night in a prison briefly interrogating prisoners brought before him and, when he decided, as he almost always did, that they were fifth columnists, he would shoot them in the back of their heads with his revolver.”

– Herbert L. Matthews (New York Times correspondent):
‘Half of Spain Died’

Most socialist historians, and even liberal-bourgeois ones such as Anthony Beevor, accept Koltsov’s account that the XI International Brigade was deployed on the 8th November, Rojo has it otherwise:

“One can be sure that they’ll say what they want, all those books that relate the event in those or similar terms, as well as the brilliant journalists who announced the city’s imminent fall that day from their parapets in Madrid’s hotels. Kleber and his men (who fought valiantly and efficiently some days later, along with the twenty or twenty-five thousand others who heroically defended the capital) were simply sunbathing somewhere in the Tajo or Tajuña valley, where they couldn’t even hear an echo of the fighting.”

– Vicente Rojo (op. cit.)

“At the beginning of the battle there was not on our front of Madrid a single International Brigade, nor even scattered Battalions. … The first of these units which was put at the disposition of the Defence Command, entered in the line on the 10th, and precisely in the sector in which it was engaged, in spite of its energetic action, on the 13th, the enemy’s Column 1 would reach the Manzanares and two days later would break through the front to penetrate the University City.”


My italics.

“The enemy Column managed to sink its first echelon into the Manzanares on November 13, between the Los Franceses Bridge and the Hippodrome. It established a front of approximately one thousand meters in length, although it did not cross the river. For its part, Column 4 moved in an eastward and northern direction, but without reaching the wall. The XI International Brigade fought brilliantly.”


The Fifth regiment took their positions on the 12th, alongside Mera’s militia, who were struggling to hold back the nationalists from the Manzanares River.

The situation becoming critical, Durruti was persuaded to reluctantly bring part of the column to the capital, the Soviet consul having promised them arms, so on the 12th November between one and two thousand* anarchosyndicalists were recalled from the Aragon front. Not to be outdone, the P.S.U.C. hastily assembled its Libertad López Tienda Column, with a view to diluting the anarchist influence. These were the first Catalan militia to reach Madrid on the 13th November, untrained and poorly armed but already parading in uniform with professional officers.

* The figures vary wildly in different accounts; Abel Paz quotes 1400 and 1700 in the same book. Some have it much higher, it’s widely accepted, however, that only about 700 were still alive a week later. In a secret report to the N.K.V.D. Antonov-Ovseenko fumes that Durruti considered Madrid to be of purely political significance and was more interested in defending the anarchist enclave in Aragon. He called up unarmed reserves from Barcelona to replace his militia, who left their rifles behind, forcing the Russians to arm them, so the front would not be weakened.

The Durruti Column met the arms shipment in Barcelona, transferring the crates from the vessel to railway cars over the night of the 13th; they took the train as far as Valencia but had to complete the journey by road as the tracks had been bombed. The recent infestation of bureaucrats filling the hotels and eating-places left the militia sitting in the street waiting for their transport. Durruti went ahead by air with Manzana, Yoldi and Oliver arriving on the 14th. The timing is important as it settles the buck-passing between anarchist and Marxist historians over responsibility for the breach of the front.

Again politics got in the way, the Catalans were supposed to be under a single command but the Communists refused to take orders from an anarchist, and the professionals from a militian. López Tienda’s raw recruits were dispersed by a fascist attack on the afternoon of the 15th. Anecdotally*, a group of Civil Guard attached to the P.S.U.C. crossed the Los Franceses bridge and switched sides, shortly afterwards the bridge was dynamited and at about 16:00 the fascists waded across the River. By the time the Durruti Column was in place at 02:00 on the 16th, the rebels had penetrated the University City area.

* “Historia y Vida, No. 35. Francisco Hidalgo Madero, a professional officer who had been a member of the Column, responds to an article by Martínez Bande discussing the Libertad-López Tienda Column.”

– Abel Paz: ‘Durruti in the Spanish Revolution’, footnote.

No one had eaten or slept for days but the counter-attack began at dawn. Another nasty surprise was in store; the rifles they had unloaded in Barcelona turned out to be obsolete and barely serviceable. Durruti telephoned De Santillan and told him to “shove them up [his] arse and send thirty-five thousand FAI grenades”*.

* Manufactured in underground workshops in Catalonia, the ‘FAI grenade’ had no pin and the lever was held in place by a piece of tape. Foreign volunteers called them ‘impartial’ or ‘neutral’ grenades, Orwell hated the bloody things but the anarchists were used to them.

Hundreds of German bombers pounded the city, targeting all residential areas except for the wealthy Salamanca district. Little Russian planes called ‘Chatos’ engaged them and their Italian fighter escorts and shot some down. On the 18th, Germany and Italy formally recognized the fascist government, everyone believed their entry into the capital was a foregone conclusion; the following day Germany signed its agreement with Japan, lest the liberal democracies get any ideas.

“Madrid is the first city in the civilized world to suffer an attack from the fascist barbarians. London, Paris, and Brussels should see, in Madrid’s destroyed houses, in its devastated women and children, in its museums and bookstores now reduced to piles of rubble, in its defenceless and abandoned population … what their fate will be when the fascists go after them.”

– César Falcón, quoted by Vicente Rojo: (op. cit.)

The columns fought on independently, since no-one could leave their post, the junta had no chance of directing operations but was purely a conduit of information between the disparate fighting units. On the 19th November the highly experienced delegate José Mira, already wounded, wrote to Durruti in desperation that his unit had been without food or rest for seven days, Durruti replied that he hadn’t stopped either. He believed the fascists had virtually spent themselves in the attack and another night could make all the difference. Manzana and Yoldi were also injured, he was trying to get them all relieved, but the situation on the ground was fluid and required his constant attention. He had arranged to meet with Mera and Val in the evening to discuss militarisation, the creeping influence of the Russians, and unifying anarchist forces in the capital.

At 14:30 that afternoon Durruti was mortally wounded by a gunshot of unknown origin; I’ll leave the speculation to others*. It’s hard for anarchists to accept that the loss of one individual could derail a popular movement, but it certainly had a demoralising effect, even the republicans shat themselves. The Working Class doesn’t need leaders, but sometimes it needs guides, those who inspire others through exemplary behaviour. There are lessons to be learned however; the cult of personality arising from his life had already become a burden to him. When his wound was pronounced inoperable by the most senior surgeon available, the medical staff breathed a collective sigh of relief; no one wanted to take responsibility for Durruti’s survival**. In that terrible atmosphere of intrigue and paranoia the whole incident became shrouded in mystery and obfuscation. The eye witnesses’ accounts of the shooting do not agree even on who was actually present!

* However, the official Republican ‘sniper’s bullet’ explanation is untenable. The autopsy report described the bullet lodged in Durruti’s chest as “9mm Largo” (long); this is the common Spanish description of the pistol and submachine gun round usually called 9x23mm Bergmann-Bayard. Ballistically its performance was very slightly lower than the better known 9x18mm Parabellum (Luger) with an absolute maximum effective range of about 200 yards. The nationalist lines were about half a mile away. There were a number of weapons in the Spanish theatre chambered for this cartridge:

  • the Astra model F, a knock-off broomhandle Mauser adopted by the civil guard in 1934. The bulky wooden holster doubled as a shoulder stock, converting it into a short carbine. It could be made to fire full automatic with a delaying mechanism in the grip that cut the cyclic rate from the natural 900 R.P.M. to a more comfortable 350. Contemporary references to “Mauser” pistols invariably denote Astras. Durruti had one, though on the day he carried the .45 Colt presented him by the French magazine le Merle Blanc.
  • The Astra 400, standard sidearm of the Regular army, and manufactured by both sides during the civil war. Pictures of Manzana clearly show this distinctive pistol on his belt.
  • According to Antonio Bonillo, who was in the car ahead of Durruti’s Packard, Manzana carried a ‘naranjero’ submachine gun, a Spanish copy of the Bergmann MP28. Some accounts place this in Durruti’s hands.

** Above all, anarchy requires honesty with oneself and others, and a readiness to assume responsibility as may be required.

Paz put it thus: “Durruti, the anti-hero, had become a hero. Ultimately, Durruti the hero killed Durruti the man.” (Op. cit.) In Goldman’s glowing tribute, “the notorious terrorist”, “this scourge of God” takes on a Christ-like aspect*. The figure of ‘Our Durruti’ was invoked by both sides in the war-versus-revolution split, quoting and misquoting at will to justify their respective agendas. A slogan, falsely attributed to him: “We renounce everything, except victory” was in fact coined by Izvestia’s Ilya Ehrenburg.** Some of his closest associates had become apologists for the state, and his most militant comrades maligned as criminals (what else could they be?) So whose Durruti was he?

* ’Durruti Is Dead, Yet Living’ by Emma Goldman, 1936. The other epithets appeared in the Spanish press after the assassination of Cardinal Soldevilla.

** – Ilya Ehrenburg: ‘Corresponsal en la Guerra Civil Española’. Júcar, Madrid, 1970, p. 24.

Even the professional liars of the Comintern dared not attack his reputation directly, so they came from behind. The people loved Durruti and must be made to love Stalin, so the two would be brought closer somehow, it was suggested that he was secretly sympathetic to the Party and was about to join when the fateful shot was fired. The ultimate insult came in April 1938 when Negrin’s government posthumously conferred on him the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. At the time, the Communists were making Lieutenant Colonels of everyone and their uncle, they tried it on Durruti’s partner Emilienne, and she told them to fuck off in no uncertain terms:

“When Durruti spoke of victory, he meant, without any possible doubt, the victory of the Popular Militias over the fascist hordes, since he rejected the idea of a military victory of a bourgeois republic that didn’t lead to social transformation. I heard him say so many times: “It wouldn’t be worth dressing up like soldiers to be governed by the Republicans of 1931 again. We accept concessions, but we won’t forget that we have to carry out the war and the revolution simultaneously.” Durruti never forgot his years as a hunted militant. The dramatic persecutions suffered by the CNT and FAI were etched in letters of blood in his memory. He didn’t trust the Republican politicians in the slightest and refused to describe men like Azaña as anti-fascists. In a word, he believed that the Spanish bourgeoisie that supported the Republican cause would not miss the opportunity to unscrupulously undermine, even in the middle of war, the proletariat’s revolutionary conquests. Regrettably, events show that he was right …”

– Emilienne Morin: ‘Nuestra Victoria’,
in ‘Le Libertaire’ 17th November 1938.

Durruti seems to have had the clearest vision of the way forward, advocating a guerrilla rather than a military campaign, something of which he had 20 years experience and which would have made better use of the limited resources available. He also steadfastly refused to compromise with bourgeois values, and held out strongly against joining the government and militarising the columns, whilst some of his comrades were so bewildered by the magnitude of the task at hand they shrank from their own principles. Above all he had absolute faith in the Working Class; it was not the rank and file but the self-appointed leadership of the CNT-FAI that tried to play its enemies at their own game; political representation is bullshit when attempted by people who actually believe in it, and anarchists make crap politicians. This is a lesson that must be repeated again and again.

Durruti many times articulated the view that if the war was not won swiftly, hierarchy would come in by the back door, through operational necessity and the bestiality of combat. There is nothing egalitarian about taking another’s life, or in sending a comrade to a certain death, even as a willing volunteer, so the means would pervert the ends. Cipriano Mera, the bricklayer who in 1934 had ridiculed Garcia Oliver’s proposal of a revolutionary army, was a meticulous planner whose anarchism, like Durruti’s rested on personal responsibility and morality. He was highly critical of the government’s abandonment of their capital, and of the political manoeuvres of the Communist Party. He had however, become preoccupied with the issue of discipline and found the pre-figurative ethos of the militias frustrating, he had been especially moved by the deaths of close comrades he considered avoidable.

“It was at that moment, after the loss of Aravaca and Pozuelo, on the outskirts of Madrid – that all my ideas about discipline and militarisation turned upside down. … The spilling of my brothers’ blood in battle made me change my opinion. I understood that in order to avoid a comprehensive defeat we had to build an army of our own; an army every bit as potent as the enemy’s; a disciplined, capable army organised to defend the workers. From then on I never ceased to advise every combatant about the necessity of submitting to the new military regulations”

– Cipriano Mera, antifascist:
quoted in ‘C.N.T.’ 23rd February 1937.

This is the conversation he proposed to have that evening; after Durruti’s death he embraced militarisation and the remains of his column became the 14th division. He accepted the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, but always considered himself, first and foremost, a bricklayer.

Paz answers him:

“Cipriano Mera’s arguments were untenable from all angles. An army like the enemy’s could not possibly be conjured up. The enemy would only be destroyed by a distinct strategy: guerrilla operations, serious infiltration in the rearguard, the sowing of revolt in that same rearguard, and the destruction of bridges. In other words a ‘scorched earth’ policy. For this type of war, and for this type of warfare we had fighters who were superior to the enemy.

But the same could not be said about conventional warfare. The ‘spilled blood of comrades’ that Mera regretted seeing ran in rivers later on, because that was the inevitable result of the military tactics used by the Russian experts, the clearest examples of which were the battles of Teruel and the Ebro.”

– Abel Paz: ‘The story of the Iron Column’.

And what was it Bakunin had said about indulging men of genius? The same could be said for men of action, for had not an incorrigible old Nosotros gunman led them into government?

“I do not think that society ought to maltreat men of genius as it has done hitherto: but neither do I think it should indulge them too far, still less accord them any privileges or exclusive rights whatsoever; and that for three reasons: first, because it would often mistake a charlatan for a man of genius; second, because, through such a system of privileges, it might transform into a charlatan even a real man of genius, demoralise him, and degrade him; and, finally, because it would establish a master over itself.”

– Mikhail Bakunin: ‘God and the State’.

The attack on Madrid abated on the 23rd November, as Durruti’s funeral brought Barcelona to a standstill. Mera’s Construction Union alone had lost two thousand four hundred members. The use of air power against civilians on this scale would become a pillar of fascist* military practice. It had a negative propaganda effect and stiffened the resolve of the defenders; it certainly increased sympathy for the Republic overseas. But the Army of Africa were unused to street fighting and so were the Republican generals, the day belonged to the militia and the ordinary citizens of Madrid.

* Like all fascist innovations it would soon be adopted by the democracies. Klaus Barbie was the first to use electricity to torture the French resistance, the French subsequently used it on the Algerians, but I’m getting ahead of myself…

The visible presence of Russian armour in the battle for Madrid gave the Third Reich an excuse to increase its involvement and it established the Condor Legion for the purpose of testing its new hardware and rehearsing tactics for the European war. On the 28th November Franco added his signature to the agreement between Germany and Italy giving the latter control of the Mediterranean, Mussolini began drafting his blackshirts into the ‘Corps of Volunteer Troops’ with silly names – the ‘Black Arrows’, the ‘Black Flames’, ‘Black Feathers’ etc. From the 29th November to the 15th January two battles were fought over the Corunna road to the Northwest of the capital, pitting heavy German artillery and Junkers JU-52 bombers against T26s under Red Army General Pavlov (one of the few who wasn’t subsequently purged) the XII and XIV International Brigades, and Mera’s column. The fascists succeeded in cutting the road but failed to encircle the city; casualties were even at around fifteen thousand each, the Thälmann Battalion was hit especially hard, with only thirty-five survivors.

High on the politicians’ agenda was the restoration of property and commerce. As early as the 27th July, to hold off the British gunboats, Marianet had met with their consul and agreed that eighty-seven firms in which Britain expressed an interest would not be socialised. Workers in these industries had to be content with control committees integrated with the management, which smacked of corporatism. A collectivisation decree issued by the Generalitat in October appeared to endorse the expropriations but made all enterprises of fewer than 100 employees exempt unless owned by proven fascists. Money was still required for some purposes, sustaining the concepts of transaction and markets. The bureaucrats withheld credit from the industrial collectives, partially strangling the Catalan arms industry.

“There was not, therefore, true socialisation, but a workers’ neo-capitalism, a self-management straddling capitalism and socialism, which we maintain would not have occurred had the Revolution been able to extend itself fully under the direction of our Syndicates.”

– Gaston Leval: ‘Collectives in the Spanish Revolution’.

Crucially, Caballero had given the Communist Party the ministry of agriculture. On the 7th October 1936, by which time some three million Spaniards were working in agricultural collectives, the Ministry had issued a decree retrospectively formalising the confiscation of land from “natural persons or their spouses or to legal persons* that have intervened directly or indirectly in the insurrectional movement against the Republic.” The Communist paper Frente Rojo boasted that it had abolished “more than forty percent of private property in the countryside”. Nevertheless the decree prescribed complex conditions for collectivisation, and provided for former proprietors to apply for restitution of land held by ‘non-conforming’ collectives. It amounted to nationalisation of land that had already been expropriated by rural workers, over which the State would conditionally grant them usufruct. Such rights, and government credit of course, would then be in the gift of the minister, Vicente Uribe, who sat on the Politburo of the P.C.E.

* I take this to mean corporate entities, trusts and estates.

As Marxist-Leninist advocates of social revolution, the POUM found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time; their defiance of Stalin made them ‘Trotskyist’ by default. But since they were not anarchosyndicalists they had to share the U.G.T. with the Catalan Socialist and Communist parties, now unified into the P.S.U.C. plus an ever-increasing influx of dispossessed bourgeoisie. Clearly there could be no room for two authoritarian Marxist groupings; this made their elimination from the union and Catalan government inevitable. To this end, in December the Stalinists provoked a crisis in the Generalitat. The Confederals interpreted this as a domestic squabble between Marxists rather that part of a carefully-planned takeover. They ought to have read Pravda:

“As for Catalonia, the purging of the Trotskyists and the anarchosyndicalists has begun; it will be conducted with the same energy with which it was conducted in the U.S.S.R.”

– Pravda: December 16, 1936.

Camillo Berneri quoted the above in his ‘Open letter to comrade Federica Montseny’ which appeared in ‘Guerra di Classe’ No. 12, on 14th April 1937.

As a practical solution they proposed that power be shared between the unions, so from the 15th December Catalonia was run by the U.G.T., C.N.T. and Rabassaires. Of the political parties only the Esquerra remained in the Generalitat in recognition of its majority in the body elected before the war. This left the POUM without representation being only a minority within the socialist union, so their leader Andreu Nin lost his place as Justice Minister. Communists Rafael Vidiella and Joan Comorera remained, only now representing their union rather than their party.

The Catalan U.G.T. was another blind spot; it would have been hard for anarchosyndicalists to conceive of a trade union being anything but the sum of its members, but the Communists saw it as an arena for party politics, as they had in Russia. By the end of 1936 it had grown considerably, thanks to the affiliation of landlords, proprietors and owners’ unions; all those desperate to legitimise their activities by holding a union card were eagerly recruited. On the 10th July 1937, the Socialist paper ‘Adelante’ would observe:

‘Let us cite one instance as an example. Under the auspices of the aforementioned party [P.S.U.C.] a trade union section entitled “Gremi d’Entitats de Petits Comerciants i Industrials” (GEPCI — Guild of Small Businessmen’s and Industrialists’ Associations) affiliated to the UGT. Workers unionised in the UGT since before last 19 July now found themselves within the ranks of the same union organisation as the people who were their bosses and who denied them very fair demands in strikes which we all of us can recall.’

– Quoted by Jose Peirats:
The CNT in the Spanish Revolution Vol. 2

In stark contrast to their behaviour at home, the Stalinists backed individualist peasants who opposed collectivisation. On 23rd January the Catalan U.G.T. hosted a landworkers’ conference at which the speakers were not peasants, but P.S.U.C. activists. The same day, armed U.G.T. smallholders forcibly expelled Confederal personnel from the village of La Fatarella, the latter’s call for assistance to Barcelona sparked a fifth column scare, and the smallholders were massacred by control patrols and assault guards.

Elsewhere, in Aragon and Levant, accommodation had been reached whereby individualists had been allowed to keep as much land as they could cultivate by their own efforts. An agreed share of their produce would secure the services of the collective and a voice at the assemblies. Such arrangements were formalised and codified in great detail at the constitutive conference of the Federation of Collectives of Aragon at Caspe in February. An agreement drawn up by the Catalan peasant federations (C.N.T. and Rabassaires) contained such clauses as:

5. Should a holding be located in the midst of collectivised lands, it will have to be exchanged with another plot, but this exchange must work to the advantage of the individual obliged to change his holding. This swap can only be effected if the said plot represents an impediment to the collective. Should there be more than one instance in the same amalgam of collectivised lands then, should no agreement be forthcoming, the dispute shall be referred to the liaison committee of the three organisations.

6. In other instances, even though amalgamation of holdings may be advisable, exchanges are to be made freely without recourse to coercion.”

When the U.G.T. was invited into the alliance, it announced it would not accept collectivisation.

The shuffle of roles put the Stalinists in charge of both internal security and food supply. Hitherto the latter had been managed by the supply committees through the Food and Transport Workers’ unions, on the basis of need. Lots of stuff was simply given away, on production of a ration book; or, in the workplace, a union card. Joan Fabregas, the C.N.T.’s food councillor who had drafted the collectivisation decree also lost his place, so its implementation fell to Comorera, who would use it as a stick to beat the district committees. Fabregas had fought for a monopoly on foreign trade, a sensible enough precaution in wartime, but the Communists advocated free markets with access based on ability to pay. A dozen Catalan wholesalers bid against each other on the Paris grain market, driving up prices. Shortages lead to bread rationing, hoarding and profiteering. The P.S.U.C. had manoeuvred itself alongside the Catalan bourgeoisie, to confront the Working Class, setting the scene for the May events and the invasion of Aragon.

Since August 1936, Control Patrols had been charged with the maintenance of ‘revolutionary order’ in Catalonia; confederals accounted for half the personnel, but only four of the eleven section delegates*, the remainder being Communist and Esquerra. These had been created by the C.C.A.M.C. in the early days to regularise reprisals and curb the zeal of the Catalan proletariat, each of whom had a thousand historic injustices to avenge. They were based on the requisition patrols plus members from anarchist groups and political parties. These bodies were fairly autonomous and the extent to which they pursued personal political agendas remains a matter of controversy. The CNT-FAI investigations department established courts and prisons to settle its scores with right-wingers and old Libres gunmen; it was responsible only to the Regional Committee. This not only set a dangerous precedent, for the other parties followed suit, but drove such elements into the arms of the Stalinists.

*By tradition anarchists avoided supervisory posts; rank and influence were only to be scorned and their disdain for the policing function left another gap to be filled by the nefarious.

The defence committees remained in operation and were ill-disposed to the interests of the political parties, which hindered the higher committees in their futile struggle to keep everyone on the same side. It was considered that they had outlived their usefulness, so attempts were made to disarm them and bring them under control of the unions. The P.S.U.C., U.G.T. and Esquerra went to work on the old law enforcement professionals, the Civil and Assault Guards, with a view to creating a police force that would serve the politicians rather than the Working Class, as it does everywhere else. A Communist chief of police, Rodriguez Salas was appointed and began stirring it up with a broad stick. The bodies of fascist rebels killed in the July uprising were exhumed and re-interred with great ceremony, to the glee of the nationalist media.

Now Stalin addressed Comrade Caballero in person, in a letter signed also by his Prime Minister Molotov and Defence Minister Voroshlikov. The preamble is a lot of guff about how historical conditions in Spain are propitious for a parliamentary route to socialism. He accedes to Caballero’s requests for military specialists and promises that these will know their place and play a consultative role only. Then he lays down his terms:

“First, the peasants have to be taken into consideration, as they make up a majority of the population in an agricultural country like Spain. Agrarian and fiscal reforms need to be devised that correspond to their interests. It is important to recruit the peasants to the army and create guerrilla detachments that will fight the fascists in their rearguard. Decrees favourable to the peasantry will facilitate recruitment.

Second, the small and medium bourgeoisie have to be attracted to the government. If that isn’t possible, they must be neutralized. Toward that end, the bourgeoisie must be protected against any property confiscations and assured freedom of commerce, to whatever degree possible.

Third, leaders of the Republican parties must not be rejected but rather encouraged to work with the government. It is necessary to guarantee the support of Manuel Azaña and his group and to do everything possible to help them overcome their hesitations. These measures are necessary to prevent Spain’s allies from considering it a communist Republic.

Fourth, the Spanish government should inform the press that it will not permit damage to property and the legitimate interests of foreigners living in Spain who are citizens of countries that do not aid the rebels.”

– Josef Stalin, 21st December 1936.

Caballero was in a cleft stick; making a fuss about a Communist takeover would play into the hands of nationalist supporters overseas, especially Britain, and guarantee that Spain would get no help from either side, so he had no choice but to play along with the grand camouflage of the Popular Front. The Communists, on Stalin’s instructions, never held more than two ministries in the government, but they penetrated every level of society, especially the military, and took over the bureaucracy as fast as it was being re-built. They operated discreetly alongside their rivals, playing one against another, until they were in a position to shove them aside. The P.C.E. acquired its own parallel police, prisons and dungeons, and acted without consulting either the Valencia government or the Generalitat, the Russian habit of casually torturing and assassinating enemies in the ‘Cheka’ had been imported. The socialist and anarchist press reported that in Murcia their own people were being tortured as well as suspected fascists.

An interesting conversation took place in the Kremlin on 2nd February 1937 between Marcelino Pascua, Spain’s ambassador to the U.S.S.R., Stalin, Voroshilov, and Molotov. Stalin announced his decision to recall his top diplomats Rosenberg and Antonov-Ovseenko to Moscow. (He intended to shoot them but probably left that bit out). Pascua proposed a treaty of friendship with the U.S.S.R. but Stalin was not keen:

“On the contrary. Perhaps it would be useful to declare that there are no special ties between the USSR and Spain. Yes, sympathy between the masses, but no secret treaty…. There are those in the English government who will come out in favour of aid if the USSR backs off…. Let me stress that [Spain] must distance herself somewhat from the USSR in order to obtain aid from England….”

– J. Stalin quoted by M. Pascua.

Rosenberg’s successor only lasted until May*, by which time the anarchists were out of the cabinet and Caballero had been replaced by Juan Negrin, the finance minister who had handed Spain’s treasury to Russia. To the outside world this represented a shift to the right, away from Marxism-Leninism and therefore the U.S.S.R. but in all aspects Dr. Negrin was Stalin’s poodle, there would be no further need of diplomatic relations once Soviet agents were embedded throughout the Spanish state.

* Yeah, he was shot as well.

At the beginning of 1937, according to the Communist education minister Jesus Hernandez, the British and French had entered into secret talks with Germany and Italy.

“Hernandez insisted that it [the Anglo-French proposition] consisted of possible overtures to Hitler and Mussolini that they withdraw their support from Franco and suggest to him that he make his peace with the Republic, in exchange for Spain possibly agreeing to at least joint control with the Italians over Spanish Morocco and return of the former German colony of Cameroons to the Reich. The British and French made this proposal to Luis Araquistain, Spanish ambassador to France and a close personal and political associate of Largo Caballero, who passed it on to the prime minister. According to Hernandez, Largo Caballero tentatively accepted the idea, if it could be brought to fruition”

– Robert J. Alexander:
‘The Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, Volume 2’

That would have been a catastrophe for Stalin; an end to the war with the social revolution still underway, several dissident Marxist groups openly defying his authority, and a basis for peace in the Mediterranean that might leave the Axis free to attack Russia without threatening the interests of the bourgeois democracies.

At the same time an assembly of the confederal columns discussed militarisation; they faced a stark choice: they could not remain in the field otherwise, as their support mechanism the C.N.T., was for the first time incorporated into the state, with its bourgeois and Soviet interests. They were split between those who, like their leadership believed in compromise for the sake of anti-fascist unity, and those who maintained, as Durruti had, that only social revolution could truly defeat fascism. Nevertheless the dissolution of the militia would leave the revolution defenceless and returning militians were apt to be conscripted anyway. Some anarchists had already joined Marxist columns because these were better supplied, and passed the war at the front unaware of the bitter power struggle going on behind their backs. Libertarian bodies and socialised production were as much at threat from bourgeois-Stalinist elements in the rear as from the nationalists, so perhaps a Revolutionary Army was not such a bad idea after all. The Durruti Column was so deeply divided on the issue it sent Manzana with a commission to the Regional Committee, the upshot of which was that each militian would have a fortnight to make up their mind. Once militarisation had been accepted as a fait accompli, it was advisable to proceed as fast as possible to keep the columns together. The Communists’ instructions were to disperse the anarchists and leftists in mixed brigades with new officers, but Caballero had stopped listening, and was beginning to play his old enemies against his fair-weather friends.

The fall of Malaga to Italy on the 8th of February 1937 gave the dictator his excuse to unseat Caballero. Malaga suffered from the same government prejudice as Catalonia, agriculture on the coastal strip was mostly collectivised and the city had been held by Confederal militia, only three-quarters of whom were armed; they had sixteen artillery pieces in total. The government’s military representative was Communist fellow-traveller Colonel Villalba, whose incompetence on the Huesca front had inflicted significant losses on the Durruti Column. Weeks of fascist build-up in the surrounding countryside had been ignored. Mussolini’s Blackshirts, nine mechanised battalions worth, descended from the hills to the North and West in little turretless tanks and armoured cars. They were accompanied by thousands of African legionnaires and Carlist Requetés, supported by a hundred aircraft, three Spanish cruisers and the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee. The city had to be evacuated; some ten thousand prisoners were executed while four thousand refugees died on the hundred and fifty mile march to Almeria, simultaneously bombarded from land, sea and air. A nationalist officer wrote:

“During the first week, when no-one could enter Malaga, four thousand were shot. They were shot down in groups by machine-guns on the Playa del Palo. Later on, courts martial were set up. At dizzying speed, people were tried – if that is the right word – in groups of fifty to seventy. In this fashion, by the third month of Malaga’s liberation ten thousand people had perished.”

– Antonio Bahamonde y Sanchez de Castro:
‘Un Ano de Queipo: Memorias de un Nacionalista’

The reprisals continued for years, in August 1944 the death toll stood at twenty thousand as reported by the nationalist administration to the British consul. I could speculate that the liberal democracies’ indifference to the systematic extermination of non-combatants may have encouraged the Nazis to press ahead with their own genocide; it certainly did nothing to put them off.

The Communists claimed the defeat was due to treachery, and they may well have been right*. Villalba was arrested but swiftly released; the under-secretary of war, General Asensio, one of the few who had failed to join the party, was variously accused of incompetence and duplicity, and Caballero had defended him. He succumbed to the pressure, but his replacement was a left-wing socialist.

* Was Villalba a ‘fifth columnist’ who regretted getting stuck on the republican side? He was allowed to return to Spain after the war, and claim a Colonel’s pension; had he ever been of any use to the Republic he would undoubtedly have been shot. He seriously undermined the Aragon front from the start, when he prevailed on the anarchists to delay the assault on Zaragoza until it was too late. Did he sacrifice Malaga on Franco’s or Stalin’s orders? Or was he just an arsehole?

The Nationalists then sought to cut the road from Madrid to Valencia, which required skirting the south of the city and crossing the valley of the Jarama River. The action was intended to coincide with an attack on Guadalajara by the Italians but they weren’t ready so Franco went ahead anyway. Beginning on the 5th February the Army of Africa with a German armoured company surprised and overran Republican forces on the West bank; these defended their positions to the death, but by the 8th, the Western heights were in fascist hands. The river crossing on the 11th was led by Moroccan commandos who killed the sentries, immediately followed by cavalry that engaged the XIV International Brigade. Another column crossed the Arganda Bridge, which failed to collapse when its charges were detonated, but was halted by the Garibaldi Battalion of the XII I.B. German and Russian aircraft clashed overhead, the Russians retaining control.

The Eastern side was reinforced by the recently formed XV I.B. of British, Irish, Francophone and Balkan volunteers. The British Battalion went into action here for the first time. Things didn’t get off to an auspicious start; their commander Wilf McCartney was accidentally shot by the Brigade Commissar Peter Kerrigan (the Comintern’s British delegate) before they left their base at Madrigueras. McCartney was invalided out so Tom Wintringham took over. The first deployment of the XV was a cock-up; they were poorly equipped, had no maps and had not been told the enemy had already crossed the river, so they came under fire as soon as they began to descend the valley. The machine-gun company found it had been given the wrong ammunition. The truck carrying the replacement batch broke down, and when it arrived, the cartridges had to be belted by hand. The ridge of land that became known as ‘suicide hill’ was continuously swept with fascist machine gun fire, it was held for hours against terrific odds by one of the three infantry companies, led by I.R.A. veteran Kit Conway, who died there.

“Reaching the crest of the hills overlooking the valley and the river, the three companies of the Battalion met the full force of the Fascist advance. Up the slopes long lines of Moors and Foreign Legionnaires surged forward under cover of artillery and machine gun fire, threatening to sweep all before them. No one in his senses could have conceived that this line of riflemen could hold up that onslaught for more than a few minutes. And behind them? Nothing. A clear field down to Arganda, Morata and the Madrid road.

But men who had come hundreds of miles to fight, sustained by an understanding of the cause for which they are fighting, do not act in the way prescribed by the military textbooks. Rapidly deploying in open formation, the Battalion went into the attack against the advancing Moors. The Fascist troops faltered, then hastily dropped down to cover. Only the sheer audacity of this handful of men could have achieved this. Had the Fascist officers been aware of the true position on our side, they would have overwhelmed the Battalion by sheer superiority of arms and numbers.”

– George Leeson, antifascist: ‘Spain Today, February 1947.

The ridge was eventually abandoned, but as luck would have it, just as the fascists came over the top the machine-gunners managed to get re-supplied and mowed them all down. The following day’s chaotic infantry retreat left the machine-gun company exposed and most were captured. Forty infantrymen then charged the position, of whom six survived. On the third day fascist tanks pushed the line back to the road, it was ‘shit or bust’. Frank Ryan and Jock Cunningham gathered the survivors to counter attack, leading them in a chorus of the ‘Internationale’:

“Some were still straggling down the slopes from what had been up to an hour ago, the front line. And now, there was no line, nothing between the Madrid road and the Fascists but disorganised groups, of weary, war-wrecked men. After three days of terrific struggle, the superior numbers, the superior armament of the Fascists had routed them. All, as they came back, had similar stories to tell: of comrades dead, of conditions that were more than flesh and blood could stand, of weariness they found hard to resist.

I recognised the young Commissar of the Spanish Company. His hand bloody where a bullet had grazed the palm, he was fumbling nevertheless with his automatic, in turn threatening and pleading with his men. I got Manuel to calm him, and to tell him we would rally everyone in a moment. As I walked along the road to see how many men we had, I found myself deciding that we should go back up the line of the road to San Martín de la Vega, and take the Moors on their left flank. Groups were lying about on the roadside, hungrily eating oranges that had been thrown to them by a passing lorry. This was no time to sort them into units. I noted with satisfaction that some had brought down spare rifles. I found my eyes straying always to the hills we had vacated. I hitched a rifle to my shoulder.

They stumbled to their feet. No time for barrack-square drill. One line of four. ‘Fall in behind us.’ A few were still on the grass bank beside the road, adjusting helmets and rifles. ‘Hurry up!’ came the cry from the ranks. Up the road towards the Cook-House I saw Jock Cunningham assembling another crowd. We hurried up, joined forces. Together we two marched at the head. Whatever popular writers may say, neither your Briton nor your Irishman is an exuberant type. Demonstrativeness is not his dominating trait. The crowd behind us was marching silently. The thoughts in their minds could not be inspiring ones. I remembered a trick of the old days when we were holding banned demonstrations. I jerked my head back: ‘Sing up, ye sons o’guns!’

– Frank Ryan: ‘The Book of the 15th Brigade’ 1938.

The one hundred and forty volunteers who marched back up the road to suicide hill did not all speak the same language, but everyone knew the tune; to compensate for their lack of numbers they engaged the enemy with a high rate of fire. Evidently the Fascists had not expected to see the routed Brigaders again, and presuming them to be reinforcements, fell back. The breach in the front was filled overnight and did not move for two years. To their right the Dimitrov and Thälmann Battalions held off the frontal assault on their own positions.

There were several costly counter attacks that failed to shift the Nationalist lines significantly, Lister’s fifth regiment advancing across open ground in broad daylight took fifty percent casualties, the North American and Irish Abraham Lincoln Battalion fared no better under similar conditions, their first engagement immortalised in the last words of poet Charlie Donnelly: “Even the olives are bleeding”. Jarama seriously undermined the morale of the International Brigades; they were used as expendable shock troops by inexperienced Communist generals who wanted propaganda victories. A month of bloodshed left both sides entrenched in a stalemate reminiscent of the Western front.

It’s fair to say the republic suffered from a lack of military experience, the Spanish metropolitan army had been little more than a dining club, only those officers who had been to Africa had ever seen combat, or even been on manoeuvres. Their tactics were from old French textbooks* or gleaned from the First World War, to which they had been spectators. The Russian officers were mostly young and equally untested, as the Red Army was being purged. Their authoritarian culture stifled initiative and they were under strict instructions not to risk capture. The best of the I.B.s were those like the Irish, with recent battle experience, or veterans of the Great War.

*To the extent that Franco believed they were receiving training from the French armed forces.

Flushed with the carnage at Malaga, Mussolini planned a showcase for fascist Italy’s martial prowess; sending his Blackshirts to cut off Madrid to the North East at Guadalajara. Instead they took such a shafting as to acquire a reputation for military incompetence and retreat that outlived his regime. Instrumental in their downfall was the Garibaldi battalion of the 12th I.B., exiled Italian antifascists with a score to settle. On the 8th of March the motorised infantry swarmed into the pass in their fleet of little tankettes. With about five to one numerical superiority they initially made rapid progress but were slowed by bad weather and boggy ground. The vehicles began to get stuck and their air support was grounded whilst the Republican air force benefitted from the concrete runway at Albacete. The 14th division led by the Madrid bricklayer Cipriano Mera counterattacked. The rout at Guadalajara guaranteed Mussolini’s continued support for Franco, to save face, it also led to the latter rescinding Blackshirt military autonomy and caused observers to re-think their strategy regarding mechanised infantry. At the same time, in their capacity as members of the non-intervention committee, Italian and German navies blockaded the Mediterranean coast; the only supply route left to the Republic was across the Pyrenees, and the French were all over that.

The Iron Column was the last to accept militarisation, eventually voting to stay and fight together. The following is an excerpt from an essay written in March 1937 by a volunteer whose name I have been unable to discover. A former soldier who spent eleven years in jail for killing a village tyrant before the anarchists set him free, he speaks of the hatred bred in the barracks, of cruelty, learning to read and finding love in prison, the beauty of the sierra, the limits of pain, and his new-found libertarian dream for which he is ready to suffer and die. Only one who has experienced the depths of degradation, he believes, can truly appreciate the value of freedom.

“Many prisoners who had suffered as I had from bad treatment received since birth, were released with me. Some of them, once on the street, went their own way. Others like myself, joined our liberators, who treated us like friends and loved us like brothers. With them we gradually formed the Iron Column, with them, at a mounting tempo, we stormed barracks and disarmed ferocious Civil Guards; and with them we rudely drove the fascists to the peaks of the Sierra, where they are now held. Accustomed to taking whatever we needed, we seized provisions and guns from the fascists as we drove them back. For a time we fed ourselves on offerings from the peasants, and we armed ourselves, not with weapons extended to us in gift, but with what we wrested from the insurgents with our bare hands. The rifle that I hold and caress, which accompanies me since the day that I forsook the prison, is mine; it belongs to me. I stripped it like a man from the hands of its former owner, and in the same manner was obtained almost every other rifle held and owned by my comrades. …

… Nobody, I guarantee it, nobody could have behaved more properly towards the helpless and needy, towards those who had been robbed and persecuted all their lives, than us, the uncontrollables, outlaws and escaped convicts. Nobody, nobody – I challenge anyone to prove otherwise – has been more affectionate and obliging with children, women and old people; nobody absolutely nobody can reproach this column – which alone, unaided and even obstructed has been in the front lines from the very beginning – with a lack of solidarity, for being arbitrary, for cowardliness or laxness in battle, or for hostility towards the peasants, or for not being revolutionary enough, because boldness and bravery have been our standard, magnanimity toward the vanquished our law, cordiality towards brothers and sisters our motto and goodness and respect the underlying framework of our lives. …

… The Column, our Column, must not be dissolved. The homogeneity that it has demonstrated on every occasion has been admirable – I am speaking for ourselves only, comrades – the sentiment of comradeship among our members will be considered a shining example in the history of the Spanish Revolution; the bravery displayed over the course of a hundred engagements may perhaps be equalled in this struggle of heroes, but it will never be surpassed. From the very first day we were friends; more than that, we were comrades and brothers. To disband, to go off in all directions, to no longer see one another, and not to have, as up until now, the impulse to fight and win, all this is impossible. The Column, that Iron Column which caused the bourgeoisie and the fascists to tremble from Valencia to Teruel must not be dissolved, it must continue to the end.”

– ‘A Day Mournful and Overcast’.
By an ‘uncontrollable’ from the Iron Column.

I find the testimony of this anonymous warrior especially inspiring; his short life has spanned heaven and hell beyond the imaginings of mythology. He goes into battle, sober and conscious, subordinating his right to exist to that of his freely chosen group; his ferocious individuality is expressed through solidarity, love and comradeship. This is humanity at its highest level. Men and women such as these could have dispensed with fascism as easily as taking a loose crap, had they not been thwarted at every turn by those with their own petty agendas.

“The journalists who sneered at the militia system scarcely remember that the militias had to hold the line while the Popular Army was trained in the rear. And it is a tribute to the strength of the revolutionary discipline that the militias stayed in the field at all. For until about June 1937 there was nothing to keep them, except class loyalty.”

– George Orwell: ‘Homage to Catalonia’.

“The café military strategists who joked at the beginning of the war about the indiscipline and ineptitude of the popular militia have at their disposal striking evidence of the tactical and strategic blunders committed by the general staff once the army was militarised. Operations leading to the division of the Mediterranean sector and later the defeat of Catalonia were the work of the loyalist high command. It planned the offensives, the battles of attrition that only wasted its own soldiers and played into the hands of the enemy.”

– Jose Peirats Valls: ‘Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution’.

The Iron Column had hoped that they could preserve their identity by simply changing their name and calling their delegates ‘officers’; reportedly a consignment of stripes arrived and each delegate put as many on his sleeve as he wished. One of the consequences of militarisation was that women were no longer permitted to be combatants. That question had been settled early on, when an assembly voted that any woman “who brought her rifle with her” – in other words, came to fight – would be welcome. Another vital revolutionary gain had been surrendered, but a new anarchist grouping was emerging to defend the social revolution. The following statement had appeared in the paper ‘Acracia’ of Lerida on the 16th of January:

“On behalf of the Durruti Column, the following units… the no. 4 Gelsa detachment, the ‘Accion y Alegria’ Group, the International Group, the artillery batteries, the machine-gunner sections and other centuries… “

‘To the comrades, to the confederal columns’ protesting at militarisation and offering a specific structure acceptable to the fighting men. They claim to speak ‘On behalf of every one of the centuries of the Durruti Column’… ‘Apparently the government is making the provision of equipment conditional upon our militarisation… According to what the committees themselves say, they cannot give us any assurances that the Madrid government will supply us with the equipment even it we do militarise. That being the case, the trespass against our principles would be rewarded with nothing more than an empty promise.’

Reprinted in ‘El Amigo del Pueblo’*, no. 5, 20th July 1937.
* Organ of the ‘Friends of Durruti’ group.

The Gelsa section of the Durruti column, stationed on the outskirts of Zaragoza, voted to return to Barcelona bringing their weapons with them; they began to call themselves the Friends of Durruti in recognition of their common origin. The group was announced on the 2nd March and formally launched on the 17th. Founder members included the journalist Jaime Balius*, Francisco Carreno of the Durruti Column War Committee, Francisco Pellicer of the Iron Column and former Nosotros member Pablo Ruiz. Membership of the group was open to Confederals only, and swelled to about five thousand before the May events. According to Guillamon, a number of U.G.T. activists switched unions in order to join the Friends. On the 4th march, the Catalan ministry of internal security announced its intention to abolish the Control Patrols. The following day, some P.S.U.C. members requisitioned ten armoured cars from the factory using a forged document; they were traced to the Voroshlikov barracks. In the second half of March the Barcelona defence committees embarked once again on a programme of revolutionary preparedness, drawing up meticulous street-by-street plans for resisting a military coup, this time by the republican government and possibly their own National Committee.

* For someone who expressed his views in such a forthright manner, Balius has been much misunderstood and misrepresented. A former insurrectionary Catalanist, he had gravitated through Marxism to anarchism and joined the FAI in 1932, he belonged to the same affinity group as Ruiz and Pellicer. From July 1936 he wrote many articles criticising political collaboration.

The P.S.U.C. decided it would like to move its Carlos Marx column from Aragon to the centre, further isolating its enemies. The Catalan defence minister Francisco Isgleas opposed the move and a vigorous campaign commenced against him, leading to his resignation on principle. The Communist press attributed the lack of progress on the Aragon front to the idleness and indiscipline of anarchists and accused the POUM of treason; but they still had no ammunition, and Stalin had decreed that none was to be landed in Barcelona.

On the 11th April Federica Montseny addressed a rally in the Monumental bullring in Barcelona, to be greeted with placards demanding the release of antifascist prisoners, including the column delegate Maroto*; she was heckled with chants of “to hell with politics, to hell with government”. The following day, the Barcelona FAI held a plenum, with delegates from the defence committees and Libertarian Youth, the Friends of Durruti being represented by Pablo Ruiz. Speakers lamented the failure of their representatives in the Generalitat to stem one counter-revolutionary edict after another, to prevent molestation of confederals and censorship of the anarchist press. In under a year they had been put back to square one, trying to fight a professional army whilst being disarmed and persecuted by a bitterly divided government that feared revolution more than fascism. The meeting voted to withdraw from the Generalitat and push on with socialisation of production.

* Francisco Maroto had been accused of treason by the Governor of Almeria, Gabriel Moron. Maroto’s column had conducted reconnaissance missions into the enemy city of Granada, although Maroto denied entering the city himself. The National Committee stated: “If Maroto entered Granada, it is because he was more skilled than Morôn, ‘the hero of Almeria’.” Maroto’s death sentence was commuted. In 1939 he was shot by the fascists.

On the fifth anniversary of the Republic the Friends published a pamphlet dissociating itself from the celebrations of the 14th April, which it saw as an attempt to play down the significance of July 1936. It called for “free unions and municipalities to take charge of the economic and social life of the Peninsula” and denounced politicians with no constituency in the workplace, especially Companys.

Meanwhile the Germans had prevailed on Franco to turn his attention away from Madrid to the semi-autonomous Basque region in the North, like the Soviets, they wanted to prolong the war, they also wanted coal and iron ore in return for their investment. The anti-civilian Mola plan was put into practice again on the 26th April 1937, market day. The Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion bombed the 14th Century wooden town of Guernica flat in an afternoon. In addition to thousand-pound high explosive bombs the Nazis dropped a great many anti-personnel and incendiary devices, and their fighter escorts machine-gunned the escaping populace. The whole thing was denied by the nationalists, and might have gone unreported but for the Times correspondent George Steer. The fascists and their friends in London such as Bolin and Jerrold claimed the town had been burned by the retreating Basque army, highly improbable given that Guernica was the historic capital of Basque nationalism and culture. Steer was able to produce three bomb cases stamped with the German eagle. The massacre inspired Picasso’s eponymous mural and the woodcut of Heinz Kiwitz, a German antifascist who joined the International Brigades in 1938 and went missing in action at the Battle of the Ebro.

The tension in Catalonia erupted in May, exploding the myth of the anti-fascist front, and exposing the divisions in CNT-FAI. On April 24th, an attempt was made on the life of Rodriguez Salas, the Communist police chief. The following day Roldan Cortada, a treintista who had left the Confederation for the P.S.U.C.* was shot dead in a Working Class district. Although his killer was never identified the finger of suspicion pointed at his former comrades, leading to a spate of raids and arrests by the already unpopular Salas.

* In fact many of the Communist leaders who had come from the Spanish workers’ movement were former anarchists, they had always been left alone.

Clashes between anarchists and Communists over control of the French border spread along the whole frontier when the mayor of Puigcerda, Antonio Martin, and three of his comrades were killed by Negrin’s Carabineri. Confederal reinforcements arrived from Lerida, Aragon and Seo de Urgel. The crisis was only ended by the Catalan Regional Committee ceding the town to the central government. Posters appeared around Barcelona declaring:

Friends of Durruti Group. To the Working Class:

      1. Immediate establishment of a Revolutionary Junta made up of workers of city and countryside and of combatants.
      2. Family wage. Ration cards. Trade union direction of the economy and supervision of distribution.
      3. Liquidation of the counterrevolution.
      4. Creation of a revolutionary army.
      5. Absolute Working Class control of public order.
      6. Steadfast opposition to any armistice.
      7. Proletarian justice.
      8. Abolition of personnel changes.

Attention, workers: our group is opposed to the continued advance of the counterrevolution. The public order decrees sponsored by Aiguade are not to be heeded. We insist upon the release of Maroto and other comrades detained.

All power to the Working Class. All economic power to the unions. Rather than the Generalidad, a Revolutionary Junta!

The word ‘Junta’ has been problematic, and figured in subsequent allegations of Bolshevism, but the proposal was for an elected body of union members, not far from the National Defence Council for which the National Committee had pressed. Nevertheless the POUM were in agreement; on 1st May Juan Andrade wrote in La Batalla:

“For instance, the ‘Friends of Durruti’ have framed their program points in posters in every street in Barcelona. We are absolutely in agreement with the watchwords that the ‘Friends of Durruti’ have issued with regard to the current situation. This is a program we accept, and on the basis of which we are ready to come to whatever agreements they may put to us. There are two items in those watchwords which are also fundamental for us. All Power to the Working Class and democratic organs of the workers, peasants and combatants, as the expression of proletarian Power.”

– Juan Andrade: ‘La revolucion Espanola dia a dia.’
Barcelona, 1979.

The Generalitat prohibited the customary celebrations of International Workers’ Day, fearing a bloodbath. In Valencia, where the Caballero faction still dominated the U.G.T. the unions held a joint Mayday rally. The following day the Friends hosted a public meeting at the Goya theatre in Barcelona, warning in the light of recent occurrences, that an attack on the workers was imminent. The May events are usually treated by historians as a footnote to the Spanish Civil war, and by liberals as a bizarre fratricidal spat between left-wing extremists. In fact they go to the heart of what the Spanish conflict was all about, for this was the showdown between the revolutionary aspirations of the Spanish proletariat, which were at least as old as the century, and the capitalist system itself. Private property and wage labour were represented here by an alliance of bourgeois Catalanists, the Comintern, and the right wing of the Socialist Workers’ Party. They were aided and abetted by those delegates of CNT-FAI mandated to negotiate with the popular front. Its denouement revealed the extent to which they too were terrified of their rank and file.

On the afternoon of 3rd of May Salas led his Assault Guards against the telephone exchange, which had been a workers’ collective* since its recapture from the army, a decisive moment in the July revolution. Control of the Telefonica by the Working Class was of vital importance as a symbolic and concrete expression of dual power since it permitted monitoring of government communications with the sanction of cutting them off. This was an intolerable situation for the bourgeois-Stalinist bloc. Like the fascists before him he only took the ground floor and was engaged by the workers upstairs with machine-gun fire.

* Its collectivisation had been ‘legalised’ by the decree in October, and it was jointly administered by the unions with a government delegate, not as is often claimed, controlled by anarchists.

The workers stood firm, disarming police throughout the city, and the defence committees erected barricades once more; outside the administrative centre they retained full control. In those districts police sided with the workers and voluntarily handed over their weapons. Ethel MacDonald, Jenny Patrick, Augustin Souchy and George Orwell all give detailed first-hand accounts of the May events.

“… three lorry loads of police had made use of the peaceful siesta hour when shops and offices are closed, to launch their attack. They had no difficulty in seizing the ground floor but our comrades in the building barricaded the stairways and swept them with machine gun fire thus preventing further assault.

Immediately, crowds gathered outside the building and the streets were filled with anxious men and women. Suddenly the cry was raised – “To the barricades. To the barricades!” It echoed through the streets and in a very short time firing had broken out all over the city.

It seems the police had used sandbags and bricks, originally intended to repel Franco’s attack, to build complete fortifications round all areas controlled by the government.

Opposite each barricade our anarchist comrades tore up the loose paving stones from the streets to build their own barricades,”

– Ethel MacDonald, antifascist:
in the Sunday Mail 5th December 1937.

Orwell, who was on leave, spent three days keeping watch on a cinema roof, MacDonald and Patrick busied themselves loading rifle clips and taking food to their comrades. The POUM being the communists’ primary target, its executive met with the regional committees of CNT-FAI and Libertarian Youth, seeking their public support for the workers’ resistance, but those bodies confined themselves to demanding the removal of Salas and Aiguadér. After this the POUM leadership also started to back away from its rank and file.

The Regional Committee broadcast radio appeals for restraint in the face of provocation; they would negotiate with the government and the police. Their fatal mistake was to assume the violence was the work of rogue elements within the Communist and bourgeois parties rather than a premeditated strategy hatched in Moscow. Delegates from their control patrols approached the Telefonica to reason with the intruders, but Salas’ orders were signed by the minister of internal security Artemi Aiguadér, who told the Regional Committee he knew nothing about it.

Juan Manuel Molina (Juanel) found himself acting Councillor of Defence owing to the resignation of Francisco Isgleas. He met the chiefs of the General Staff, who assured him he had their confidence. They put him in contact with the commanders in the barracks and at the front, who in turn pledged their allegiance. He then reported to the committees of the Libertarian movement, that all the barracks of Barcelona, except the Carlos Marx, awaited his instructions. The C.N.T. coastal batteries on Montjuich were especially twitchy, keen to bombard the Stalinists. He wrote:

‘With the military situation of Catalonia well in hand, the battle which the Communists had initiated was won by us.’

Molina told Pedro Herrera and Diego Abad de Santillan:

“Paradoxically we have won the battle by sounding retreat. Among many other things, we have all the military forces of the region which await my instructions. You are in an advantageous situation to impose solutions which will be a guarantee for our organizations and for the people. Don’t make a deal!”

– Juan Manuel Molina: ‘El Comunismo Totalitario’,
Editores Mexicanos Unidos, Mexico, 1982

On the morning of the 4th, police occupied the Palace of Justice and a few C.N.T. offices. With the provocateurs still in post, a general strike began; the centre of the city was deserted. Battle lines were clearly drawn, with the Catalan police, Assault and Civil Guards plus civilian activists of the political parties manning one set of barricades, and the defence committees, Libertarian youth, POUM and Friends of Durruti on the other. In addition, agents provocateurs, of whatever persuasion, fired stray shots in quiet districts. Police visited a house occupied by Italian militia on leave from the Aragon front, and confiscated their weapons. Among them was Camillo Berneri, whose article ‘Between the War and the Revolution’ had compared the Soviets to the fascists.* Twelve members of the Libertarian Youth were seized on their way to the headquarters of the Regional Committee, the Casa CNT-FAI, and their mutilated corpses dumped out of an ambulance four days later. The Regional Committee made three broadcasts over the afternoon appealing to all parties for antifascist unity. The Friends issued leaflets repeating the demands from their poster for a revolutionary junta, the dissolution of political parties and the Generalitat; commending those POUMistas who had stood by the workers. Delegates of the two groups met in the evening, and concluded that despite having control of the city, without the support of the Regional and National committees the uprising would fail.

* ”The article in Number 6 [of ‘Guerra di Classe’] has irritated the Consul General of the USSR in Barcelona who has asked the regional committee [of the CNT] if they approved it. I don’t know what they replied.”

– Camillo Berneri, January 1937. Quoted in:
‘Pensieri e battaglie’ (Paris 1938)

Aiguadér requested fifteen hundred assault guards from Valencia to overcome the workers’ resistance. Caballero being engaged in a power struggle with the Stalinists and right wing of his own party, hesitated to place troops at the disposal of the person he suspected of instigating the conflict. He would accede only on condition the central government assumed responsibility for them, effectively revoking Catalan autonomy. First he sent a delegation of C.N.T. and U.G.T. to Barcelona to negotiate a truce between the unions. Montseny (whose car was shot at), Marianet and Oliver arrived from Valencia in late afternoon. Oliver recalls in his memoirs that the ministers’ intervention was not welcomed; they were reluctantly accommodated on chairs and sofas, on going in search of food, he came across Companys and his wife dining lavishly with the P.S.U.C. and the Russians.

Two cars travelling from the docks to Casa CNT-FAI were stopped at a roadblock just three hundred yards away and their occupants executed in cold blood; the Regional Committee then ordered armoured cars for its defence. A joint statement from both regional federations called on the combatants to lay down their arms and return to work. The C.N.T. Hide and Leather workers Union was attacked while negotiations continued overnight. Eventually all the ministers resigned, Salas and Aiguadér went with the rest; The C.N.T. delegates suggested a provisional government be set up having one councillor from each party, but no-one who had been involved hitherto.

Fifteen hundred members of the Red and Black Column, and the Lenin Division of the POUM, having secured the front, prepared to return to Barcelona. They had shadowed a P.S.U.C. column as far as Barbastro, and were being menaced by the air force.

“Maximo Franco, chief of the 127 brigade, most nervous, had already passed Monzón, at the front of a battalion, with its corresponding material, some cannons and machine-guns. I gave instructions to the Organization in Binefar to meet the column, and get Maximo Franco to call me on the telephone. He did, and on my assuring him that I continued at the head of the Councillorship of Defence and in Barcelona we had enough and more than enough to dominate the Communists, he returned to the front his unit. In spite of the fact that the chief of the Red and Black had distributed his forces on the front, leaving its defence assured, we could not give pretext to the enemies and to public opinion that a military unit had abandoned the front.”

Molina (op. cit)

In October 1934 Companys had aborted his insurrection on the first cannon shot, his refusal to work with anarchosyndicalists having doomed it to failure. In July 1936 he had abandoned Catalonia to its fate for the same reason; nevertheless they had taken his subsequent contrition and conciliation at face value and considered him an ally. Now he called for the republican air force to bomb them out of existence*. When it refused, he again surrendered Catalan independence, invoking an emergency provision of the Statute of Autonomy; responsibility for order in the region passed to the central government, just six months after they had deserted their own capital. Crucially it also placed the Aragon militia under the command of the Communist General Pozas. Companys’ may have gambled that provoking a showdown between the Communists and the anarchists would lead Caballero’s government to put his party back into power, in fact it was only the CNT-FAI policy of democratic collaboration that was keeping him employed. In 1940 he was arrested in occupied France and returned to Barcelona to be shot at Montjuich Castle.

* ”During the May Days the government of the Generalitat requested that the government of Spain send airplanes to bomb the CNT strongholds and this request was denied. Companys then asked what he was supposed to do to get the situation under control and he was told that there was no other solution besides surrendering jurisdiction over Public Order in Cataluña to the central government, and Companys surrendered it.”

– Jaime Antón Aguadé i Cortès, nephew of Artemi Aiguadér: Signed and dated before witnesses in Mexico City 9th August, 1946

“The President of the Generalitat, communicates to the under-secretary of the Council, that the rebels have brought artillery into the streets. It is requested that orders be conveyed to Sandino to place himself at the disposal of the Government of the Generalitat.”

– Fragment of teletype from Companys to Valencia: Documentation on deposit at the Hoover Institute.

The 5th of May dawned with attacks by assault guards on the Medical Union and the Local Federation of the Libertarian Youth, both telephoned the Regional Committee for help, but six young anarchists died defending their headquarters. Further down the coast at Tarragona, police occupied the telephone exchange and cut off communications between the libertarians’ offices. The political parties and Socialist Youth were seen to be arming their civilian activists. Whilst entering into negotiations with the bureaucracy, the libertarians prepared for attacks on their premises. Likewise at Tortosa, where fighting broke out immediately and the anarchists gained the upper hand. The Generalitat’s radio station spoke of uncontrollable elements within the C.N.T., in response the Regional Committee telephoned it to ask who was controlling the police.

The Italian anarchists’ house was raided again; Professor Berneri and his friend Francisco Barbieri were abducted and shot. In his book, ‘Ready for Revolution’ Augustin Guillamon shows, with the aid of contemporary photographs, how the two Italians were completely hemmed in by P.S.U.C. barricades and overlooked by the balconies of the U.G.T. office. There was only one door, and it is inconceivable that anyone could have entered or left the building without the Communists’ permission. Assassinations on foreign soil had to be personally sanctioned by Stalin and carried out by special mobile squads; they were considered too risky to be left to the locals. Also found dead was Domingo Ascaso, delegate of the column named for his brother, and Francisco Ferrer, who bore the same name as his famous uncle.

Discussions over the provisional government proposal commenced immediately, the Communists stalled, and at noon Valencia gave them what they had been waiting for. General Pozas would take charge of the army in the East, including the POUM and Confederal divisions in Aragon; Colonel Escobar would be delegate of public order. Agreement was finally reached in the afternoon, Aiguadér’s job was abolished but Salas would continue pending the arrival of Escobar, who was shot and wounded on arrival in Barcelona. At five the following terms were proposed by Regional Committee and accepted by the new administration:

  • Hostilities to cease.
  • Each party shall keep its positions.
  • The police and their civilian allies are specifically asked to stop fighting.
  • The responsible committees to be informed at once of any breach of the pact.
  • Solitary shots should not be answered.
  • Defenders of Union premises to remain passive and await further instructions.

The firing continued, new barricades appeared closer to Casa CNT-FAl. Gregorio Jover returned from Huesca to see what was going on but balked at recalling the militia.

The 6th May; the police continued to fortify their positions; the Libertarian youth headquarters in Tarragona came under attack. The death toll stood at five hundred, with fifteen hundred wounded. The Friends of Durruti issued a manifesto naming the provocateurs as the political parties and the Generalitat’s security forces, disowning the C.N.T. committees for calling a ceasefire, and urging the workers not to give up the ground they had “taken in an open and resolute battle.” This was rejected as a provocation by both CNT-FAI and Libertarian youth. Although the POUM leadership never actually endorsed it, the Friends’ manifesto was reprinted in La Battalla, a propaganda gift to Moscow. Another joint statement from the unions called for a return to work, broadcast over the radio and appearing in the press alongside the Friends’ manifesto. The fighting abated somewhat, but no one could return to work with the police still building barricades and arresting workers; anyone with a C.N.T. card was subject to harassment. Antonio Sese, the Catalan U.G.T. secretary, and its representative in the new provisional government, was fatally shot in front of the Theatre Union, apparently by friendly fire from his own barricade. His companions bore witness to this, believing his death to be accidental, but it did nothing to calm the situation, and held up proceedings for half a day.

A truce had settled on the telephone exchange, and food was sent up to the workers. Both sides agreed to withdraw, however the police failed to comply and replaced C.N.T. workers with U.G.T. members; thus the exchange fell into Communist hands. An hour later they attacked the railway station. Later in the day, the Confederation issued a press release stating its position in the hope of setting the record straight. The executive committee of the Catalan U.G.T. held an extraordinary meeting to expel members of the POUM.

Back in Valencia, it fell to Oliver as justice minister to negotiate the entry of the assault guards, who had been withdrawn from the Jarama front supposedly to relieve the police and restore order. Montseny and Marianet reported that as Escobar’s replacement had retained Salas as police commissioner, the police were preparing to attack union premises and trying to encircle the Regional Committee. Fighting was still going on in Tarragona. It would be too inflammatory to allow them into Barcelona unless there was an armistice; it was doubtful they would even make it through anarchist-controlled territory. The minister of the interior ordered Salas’ dismissal and the two worked through the night, imploring the defence committees to grant the troops safe passage. They were allowed to enter Tortosa unmolested, where they immediately raided Confederal premises, arresting those who had put down the Communist coup, whilst the P.S.U.C. and Catalan nationalists came out of hiding and looted collective property. They arrived in Barcelona on the evening of the 7th May. The demoralised workers abandoned the barricades, they would not turn against the leaders of 19th July even though the battle was all but won when the latter made their first desperate appeals for ceasefire. They had declined to take power, now they found themselves wielding it anyway, on behalf of the Soviet Union. The Communists, claiming victory, left their barricades up and held onto their prisoners.

Also resident in the city at the time was the Republican president Manuel Azana, who had every reason to fear the Working Class having famously ordered the massacre at Casas Viejas, with the words: “take no prisoners” “shoot them in the guts”. His legendary cowardice had been, by turns, a source of amusement and embarrassment to his colleagues, who tolerated him because his ambivalent politics were thought to appeal to foreign capitalists. He had left Valencia to be close to the French border and with the outbreak of hostilities telegraphed the defence ministry demanding that his physical safety take precedence over everything else. To his dismay they all had more pressing concerns; in desperation, he threatened to resign. A vessel was duly sent to evacuate him but it took four days to get him out of the house as he was afraid to step into the street. During a quiet spell, his marine bodyguards nearly shamed him into taking the four-minute ride to the docks but more shots rang out and he froze. He recorded his feelings of terror and abandonment in his diaries, and later in his memoirs, which have sadly coloured the liberal historians’ narratives of the May events.

A glance at the contemporary Communist press such as Britain’s ‘Daily Worker’ portrays the people’s reaction to their provocation as a conspiracy involving Trotsky, Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, the POUM and the ‘uncontrollables’ (the rank and file committees) – supported by the evidence of the Moscow show trials of the previous year. Stalin’s purge of the leaders of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution had been achieved with elaborate and detailed forced confessions*, which all relied on the thesis that Trotsky and Hitler were allies. Trotsky would stop at nothing to overthrow Stalin, and to this end his followers were plotting with the fascists to invade his former homeland. In its manifesto on the twentieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution**, the executive committee of the Comintern reported that Trotsky had promised the Ukraine to Germany, and Primorsky Krai – Russia’s Eastern maritime province – to Japan in return for their assistance. I suppose it would have been harder to sell this bullshit had Trotsky not been remembered in Russia as a ruthless sociopath. The ogre and the exile were well matched, Stalin was terrified of him, for Trotsky was writing his biography, so even his childhood memories were being surgically dissected and used against him.

* One of the defendants, Eduard Holtzman testified that in 1932 he had gone to Copenhagen for a meeting with Trotsky at which they discussed the assassination of Stalin. He was staying at the Hotel Bristol, and Trotsky had sent his son, Sedov to fetch him. Perhaps neither Holtzmann nor his interrogators were aware the Hotel Bristol had been demolished in 1917! In later debunking the confession, Sedov was able to provide an alibi, and in any case had never visited the city. Holtzmann, like most of the accused, was shot the following day, within the 72 hours officially allowed for appeal.

** Inprecor, xviii, 48, p. 1145, 6th November 1937

It was all for domestic consumption of course, but the fiction had to be maintained, and the existence of an independent Marxist party fighting alongside the Communists in an antifascist war was an anomaly they could not sustain. As the conspiracy theory was elaborated and embellished, the POUM, thousands of whom were still fighting in the front line, morphed from ideological heretics to ‘Trotsky-fascists’ a network of spies, saboteurs and agent-provocateurs funded by Germany and Italy. Several versions of the conspiracy were published, the standard one being an attempted coup by the POUM to coincide with an Italian invasion; in the Daily Worker, the anarchists were to blame. Orwell deconstructs the theory in some detail, starting with the allegation of Trotskyism – by then a meaningless insult, and examines the impossibility of the POUM organising such a thing in Barcelona where everything was controlled by the unions, in which they had only marginal representation. He speculates that in Britain the anarchists made more plausible culprits, as few readers would know what a Trotskyist was. Further, the POUM was affiliated to the London Bureau – as was the I.L.P. which could easily seek redress through the courts for libel.

However the resistance was not entirely spontaneous; the barrio defence committees had anticipated and planned for just such an eventuality, and only the capitulation of the CNT-FAI’s higher committees could stop it. Even with their hastily deployed reinforcements, the Communists and Catalanists in Barcelona could command fewer troops in May than the nationalists on the 19th July, and those had little more going for them than guns and uniforms, whereas the Working Class controlled ninety percent of the city and its suburbs, with their defence committees embedded at neighbourhood level. The Libertarian Youth surrounded the Carlos Marx barracks throughout the disturbance; they could have taken it at any time, and although they had a machine-gun and a cannon, their self-discipline prevented them returning fire. During a tense meeting with Companys and the Stalinists, Santillan informed them that the Montjuich heavy artillery batteries were trained on the Generalitat*. He instructed the gunners to call every ten minutes, and if they received no response, to act as they saw fit; should the politicians break faith, they would all share the same fate. Recall of the militia from Aragon would have turned it into a rout, but also destroyed the Republic and left the Confederation isolated internationally, the world’s anarchists having nothing comparable to the Communist propaganda machine.

* The conciliatory tone of the National Committee led many workers to believe they had been taken hostage.

The cobblers that clattered off the Comintern’s presses was far too well prepared to have been made on the hoof in response to chaotic events, given the necessity of clearing everything with the boss it had to have been worked out well in advance. The groups who found themselves in the frame had obviously been caught on the hop, even the Friends, although expecting treachery had been reactive. Nevertheless it was taken at face value outside Catalonia; nowhere in the official government reports was it admitted that the police had acted unilaterally. The U.S. ambassador Claude Bowers, who passed the war in France wrote in his memoirs in 1954:

“A crisis had been provoked by the anarchists and the POUM (United Workers Marxist Party), which was composed of Trotsky communists. It was generally believed that many of these were Franco agents…”

In ‘The Tragedy of Spain’ written in August, Rudolf Rocker has it that the P.S.U.C. barricades were the first to be erected, at the instant shots rang out, and Robert Alexander* has pointed out that neither La Batalla nor Solidaridad Obrera were in worker-controlled areas and no arrangements had been made to defend or move either periodical before fighting broke out. Casa CNT-FAI was at the epicentre of activity, and was only fortified with two armoured cars on the evening of the 4th, and three more the following day, after its occupants witnessed the massacre of their comrades. De Santillan believed the plot had been hatched in France and Belgium during meetings between Russian agents and right-wing Catalanists that had been excluded from the Generalitat for their links to the nationalist bloc. The latter would seek to suppress the libertarian movement on the way to creating an independent state that would secede from the republic. The former wished to drive a wedge between the unions and destroy the political credibility of the C.N.T.s National Committee as a prelude to replacing Caballero. They would then abolish Catalonia altogether and take Aragon. That is in fact what happened. He wrote:

“Long before the first shot was discharged in Barcelona, English and French cruisers were hurrying toward the port as if they had a prophetic presentiment of the things to come. If one takes all this into consideration, one asks oneself how much faith in the triumph of the anti-Fascist cause still exists among those people who invoke foreign protection against the workers of their own country?”

– Solidaridad Obrera, May 13, 1937.

* ‘Anarchists in the Spanish Civil war.’ Volume 2.

Walter Krivitsky, director of Soviet Military intelligence in Europe claimed one of his agents had infiltrated the group of Russian anarchist exiles in Paris, and gained the trust of FAI activists in Barcelona.

“With only some thousands of supporters at its disposal it [the P.O.U.M.] could not hope to seize power for itself. But it could hope to disrupt and split the two great trade union organisations just when their relations were improving. This is shown by the fact that as soon as the putsch began the leaders of the P.O.U.M. tried to win over to their own side some of the wilder elements of the C.N.T. (National Confederation of Labour, the Anarcho-Syndicalist organisation) and tried to get them to take part in street fighting against both the forces of the U.G.T. (Socialist Trade Union) and those of the Catalonian authorities and of the Central Government. Thanks to the calmness and energy of the leaders of these two organisations, this disaster was avoided and the Trotskyists found themselves on the barricades alone with the Fascists of the Fifth Column and a handful of disorderly elements.”

– Georges Soria: ‘Trotskyism in the Service of Franco
Facts and Documents on the Activities of P.O.U.M.’ 1937.

Soria was the Spain correspondent of French Communist daily, ‘L’Humanité’ and the Comintern’s ‘International Press Correspondence’ (inprecorr). This work of fiction was circulated by the Communist press to set the scene for the unsuccessful Barcelona show trials of October 1938. It contains some alleged transcripts of interrogation, fantastic tales of documents written in code and ‘invisible ink’ and a lot of self-referential Stalinist polemics against the POUM’s fundamentalist interpretation of Marxism. As usual, all evidence and conclusions must be taken on trust and further discussion or analysis is superfluous. Relations between the unions had never been worse, and the “disorderly elements” would have been the Barcelona workers’ district committees, the same ones that had defeated the army, created and maintained the militias, and been feeding the city ever since. Plus the Friends, veterans of the Durruti Column that had held the Aragon front for nine months, counting every cartridge. Apart from the fantastic allegations of collusion with the enemy, the main charge against the POUM was that they failed to endorse the Comintern’s popular front strategy – because they didn’t agree with it – and that they concurred with the nationalist press in warning against Spain becoming a Russian satellite – which was simply true. The most heinous crime in any totalitarian code is faulty propaganda. With Soria’s allegations discredited, that’s all he has left:

“On the one hand, the charge that the leaders of the POUM, among them Andrés Nin, were ‘agents of the Gestapo and Franco’ was no more than a fabrication, because it was impossible to adduce the slightest evidence. On the other hand, although the leaders of the POUM were neither agents of Franco nor agents of the Gestapo, it is true that their relentless struggle against the Popular Front played the game nolens volens* of the Caudillo”

– Georges Soria: Guerra y revolución en España 1936-1939.

* ‘Willingly or unwillingly’

Apologists for the Republic persist in the argument that collectivisation was a hindrance to the war effort – but what hindrance compared with the starvation of supplies to the front they enforced to prevent it? Given that social revolution was the main motivation for those who were actually doing the fighting. Accusing the left of creating division while relentlessly slandering part of the front line, imprisoning dissenters on vital war work, and even more incredibly, accusing them of secret communications with the fascists whilst publishing actual positions and troop numbers in their papers for the whole world, and the fascists to see!

American Communist Liston Oak drew his own conclusions; whilst in Russia to take up a post on the English language daily Moscow News, he was assigned to the Spanish Republican foreign office as Director of Propaganda for Britain and the United States. One of his duties was showing around celebrity Civil War tourists such as Ernest Hemingway. In 1937 he found himself in Barcelona; given his position of trust within the Party and proximity to the arch-Stalinist foreign minister Alvarez Del Vayo, he was firmly on the inside, yet he interviewed Andreu Nin twice, then made himself scarce. He wrote an analysis of the May events that articulates both the anarchists’ and the POUM’s position and places it in context. As a Comintern insider, he knew Stalin was about to throw the game. It’s quite a remarkable document; you can find the whole thing online and I’d urge you to read it.

“The Anarchists waited too long. If they had struck nine months ago, or even three months ago, they would have been able to capture power. … Those who call the Government of loyal republican Spain a “Red dictatorship” are quite mistaken. If it were really “red”, the Anarchists would not now be fighting in the streets of Barcelona. The Generalitat is not a workers’ government and it is not revolutionary. …

… During the past nine months of civil war there have been numerous armed fights, particularly in the smaller towns and villages. The question of collectivisation of agriculture loomed large in this feud. News of these “riots” was not often printed in the Spanish newspapers and it was, of course, censored in the despatches of foreign correspondents. …

[The Communists, Socialists and Left Republicans] demand the dissolution of the Workers’ Committees which have controlled the factories and collectivised farms – something like the Russian Soviets prior to the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution – constituting a dual power. …

… I left Barcelona the day before the fighting began, after four months in Spain, three of which were spent working for the Valencia Government. I profoundly regret anything which weakens the anti-Fascist united front, but I cannot agree with the official version of events which makes the Anarchists the villains of the plot. The common conception of an Anarchist as a wild irresponsible hooligan is as far from the reality as the same conception of a Bolshevik some years ago. …

[The Anarchists] charge that the “Stalinists” have organised a G.P.U. in Spain controlled from Moscow. They point to the imprisonment recently of the Anarchist Morato, who is now on hunger strike, and to the jailing of dozens of other Anarchists on one pretext or other of disobedience to the decrees of the Government, in Murcia, Lerida and elsewhere. They protest against the suppression of Anarchist newspapers. They point to the exclusion of the C.N.T.-F.A.I. from the Basque Government and the imprisonment of numerous Anarchists in Bilbao. And they remember that in Soviet Russia the Anarchists were long since “liquidated.”

… If you are puzzled as to why the Communists and Socialists join with the Left Republican and Catalonian Nationalists in opposing such a revolutionary programme, the Anarchists and the P.O.U.M. will answer that the politics of both the Second and Third Internationals are no longer revolutionary, but reformist and social democratic. They will tell you that the Comintern has long since abandoned its hopes for a world revolution – until after the world war they are sure is on the horizon. The Spanish Communist Party has become an instrument of the Soviet Foreign Office.

… Soviet Russia seeks security and will sacrifice the Spanish Revolution because Anglo-French imperialism demands it as the price of possible military aid to Russia against German-Italian-Japanese aggression, Andres Nin, P.O.U.M. leader, told me last week. He said that the only hope of saving the Spanish Revolution lies in an acceptance by the Anarchists of a Bolshevik line of action. … “

– Liston M. Oak: ’Behind Barcelona Barricades’ from ‘The New Statesman and Nation’, 15 May, 1937.

My italics; for more about Liston Oak: ‘The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos and the murder of Jose Robles’, by Stephen Koch, Counterpoint, New York 2005.

He’s still a Marxist; like Nin and Orwell he has no problem with the dictatorship of the proletariat and he wishes for a ‘Lenin’ to take charge, but he shows rare (under the circumstances) insight into the Iberian anarchist world-view and he echoes the sentiments of Garcia Oliver at that fateful plenum on the 21st July 1936. He understands that the events of May and June 1937 amount to a coup against the Working Class, and a return to the misery of the 1931 compromise government.

Although the Communists and their allies had proved incapable of defeating the anarchist movement directly, and would do so again, even at the end of the war, when it had been greatly weakened, the balance sheet was vastly in their favour. In a little over a week they had brought Catalonia under military occupation, isolated the Catalanists, taken over command of the Aragon front, undermined the Caballero government, discredited the POUM and the district committees to a global audience, sunk the mooted pact between the unions and forced the CNT-FAI leadership to side with the Popular Front against its own rank and file.

The Spanish anarchist movement had shifted its focus from overthrowing the bourgeoisie to defeating fascism, the bastard offspring of capitalism and bolshevism, this it now held as the pinnacle of achievement. The Kremlin’s agents had planted the idea of restoring the status quo, with a veneer of socialism but basically business as usual, reviving the old conflicts of interest and breaking the community of purpose forged on the 19th of July. Now the expropriated bourgeoisie, the thwarted right, marginalised officials and paramilitaries were taking revenge on the workers. Across provincial Catalonia, confederals were murdered or arrested, and union premises ransacked. They found themselves in the same bind as Caballero, having to play down both their own revolutionary intent, and the Russian takeover, to avoid giving ammunition to the enemy.

“The Regional Committee was informed that the armed forces of the Catalan Nationalists and the PSUC had taken possession of the village of San Juan. The armed workers of the CNT and the FAI entered the village, disarmed the enemy and liberated their comrades. In the open village square they had to answer for their actions. They were warned not to take up arms against the people. Then the anarchists set their enemies free again. …

… At six o’clock they telephoned that 1,500 Assault Guards had reached Tortosa on their way to Barcelona. They occupied the headquarters of the CNT unions, the cultural centres of the FAI and the Anarchist Youth, arresting all those found inside. These troops had come from the central part of Spain. According to the evening paper Noticiero Universal of Saturday May 8th, these troops had come from the trenches of the Jarama front, where they had been fighting for four months alongside the International Brigade. The anarchists could also have called in their columns from the Aragon front, as well as armed forces from other parts of Catalonia, and there is no doubt that they could have been victorious within 24 hours. But they did not want to break up the anti-fascist front. They never did more than defend themselves against the attacks directed against them.”

– Augustin Souchy, antifascist, Germany and Spain:
‘The Tragic Week in May’

The Spanish anarchists were betrayed again and again. A common thread running through all this is their disdain for revenge, even in the face of personal grief. This informs our attitude to prisons and other punishments. Violence was only to be used as a tool for creative purposes, to defeat fascism and defend the revolution; vindictiveness was simply regarded as a vice to be resisted.

That nobility of spirit survived the war and even the horrific purges that followed it. Refugees who were interned, tortured and starved in French concentration camps – some were held on beaches with no shelter, others put to slave labour – nevertheless fought with the Maquis and with La Nueve, the Free French armoured division under General Leclerc that liberated Paris. First in was Spanish anarchist Armando Granell, flying the flag of the long-defunct Second Republic.

The anti-Franco action groups formed by Spanish youth in the post-war period also swore off pursuing personal vendettas because it would have dissipated their energy. They had to live among the torturers, assassins and informers; every one of them had lost relatives and friends to these people and there were too many scores to settle, instead they were dedicated to cutting the head off the snake. They were also prepared to work with Communists.

Spanish politics had turned itself inside out, bourgeois Communists fighting communism, Catalanists abolishing Catalan autonomy, anarchist revolutionaries such as Oliver and Montseny interceding with the workers on behalf of the government, and the far left accused of collusion with the far right. Stalinism was a new phenomenon and not yet understood; as late as the 1st May, Orwell, a ‘Trotsky-fascist’ whose sympathies lay with the anarchists, but admired the Communists’ efficiency, was still angling for a transfer to the I.B. on the Madrid front, so he could shoot some actual fascists.

CNT-FAI tore itself apart, and the National Committee voted to expel the Friends of Durruti, accusing them of ‘Bolshevism’. The Friends themselves were split, some left the group rather than quit the union they regarded as their extended family. However, as Balius pointed out, they could only be expelled from the Confederation by a vote of their union locals, and the threat doesn’t seem to have materialised. As the C.N.T.’s conscience, the FAI produced convoluted arguments as to how the progress of anarchism was being advanced by maintaining an entity which reserved to itself the rights of secrecy and coercive force, issuing Bolshevik-style denunciations of anyone who didn’t agree. It abandoned the tried and tested affinity group structure and opened its ranks to anyone who claimed to agree with its principles – or rather the pronouncements of its self-appointed leaders. It was becoming a political party in all but name. So ambition, self-justification and vested interests could be hidden behind the concept of ‘anarchism’, as the Bolsheviks had once hidden theirs behind ‘communism’.

“Since I wrote to you last week the frightful thing has happened, a thing most of us foresaw, only I tried so hard to explain it rather than condemn at the outset. The pact with Russia in return for a few pieces of arms has brought its disastrous results. It has broken the backbone of Montseny and Oliver and has turned them into willing tools of Caballero. I don’t know whether you receive Combat Syndicaliste. I am writing [to] Mollie [Steimer] to send you the current copy. You will see that the murderous Stalin gang have killed Berneri and another comrade and that they were back of the attempt to disarm the comrades of the CNT-FAI. Still more terrible to me is that Oliver and Montseny have called a retreat and have denounced the militant Anarchists, to whom the revolution still means something, as counterrevolutionists. In other words, it is a repetition of Russia with the identical method of Lenin against the Anarchists and S.R.’s who refused to barter the revolution for the Brest-Litovsk Peace.”

– Emma Goldman: letter to Rudolf Rocker 14th May 1937.

The political manoeuvring did not prevent the C.N.T. losing its representation in the government either. In a cabinet meeting on 15th May, the two Communist ministers Uribe and Hernández provoked a crisis by demanding the POUM be outlawed, or they would resign, when Caballero refused on principle, three of his Socialist rivals left with them. It became impossible for Caballero to form a new government, since he could not work with the Communists and the Republican Left would not participate without them. So on the 17th May, Azana replaced Caballero with the moderate* socialist Juan Negrin. They were finally rid of the ‘Spanish Lenin’.

* I find such labels pretty meaningless in this context.

It was a reversion from Antifascist Front to Popular Front, a middle class government without the unions. Once the anarchists were out of the cabinet the new minister of war Indalecio Prieto lost no time in abolishing the famous Popular War Schools that had greatly impressed Caballero and some of the regular officers. These had been set up by Garcia Oliver on the model of the original in Barcelona to train militians for command; henceforth, military promotions would be political appointments.

Orwell took a bullet in the throat on the 20th May, which probably saved his life, and was back in Barcelona by the end of the month. On the 15th June, he and his friend Georges Kopp, a Belgian engineer who had rendered himself stateless* to fight in Spain, both left the city; Orwell on a mission to obtain his discharge papers, and Kopp for Valencia, where he would receive orders for a specialist posting. Suppression of the POUM began in earnest the following day; all its premises were raided simultaneously with hundreds of arrests. Where suspects gave the police the slip, their relatives were taken hostage, after the Russian practice.

“The POUM, unaware of the full implications of the swing of power to the Stalinists, did not foresee the wonderful efficiency of the police action modelled on GPU lines. Never in Spain, where the police were always poorly organised, was a roundup so efficient. This was because it was planned and directed by Russian experts.”

– ‘The voice of the prisoners of Spain’,
Paris, 12th August 1937.

* Kopp had been manufacturing ammunition and procuring arms for the Republic until the Belgian government shut down his operation. He made his way to Barcelona and joined the POUM militia. Following the purge he remained in jail until 1939, when he joined the French Foreign Legion. Wounded and captured by the Nazis, he escaped from a military hospital then worked for British Naval Intelligence; he lived in England and Scotland after the war, with his British wife Doreen Hunton.

Amongst those arrested ‘for espionage’, was Andreu Nin. His disappearance provoked an international outcry and he was abducted by Soviet agents* from the prison in which he was being held. The official version, which no one believed**, was that he had been sprung by the Gestapo. Jesus Hernández later revealed, as feared, that Nin had been tortured to death under the direction of Aleksandr Orlov. Stalin’s plan for a show trial and purge of POUMistas would follow the routine tried and tested in Moscow, whereby Nin would be induced to confess to spying for the fascists, at the instigation of Trotsky, as part of the conspiracy against Stalin, etc, etc. and implicate others to order. Nin thwarted the plot, despite his physical frailty he withstood several days of mediaeval brutality, and passed away on or about the 21st of June. He gave them nothing.

* The operation was led by NKVD assassin Iosif Grigulevich, a close associate of senior members of the Spanish Communist Party. (Boris Volodarsky, ‘Soviet Intelligence Services in the Spanish Civil War’, 249–50).

** Juan Negrin was greeted with incredulity by his colleagues when he repeated the story.

Not all of my heroes are anarchists. Nin’s politics were faulty, but no more so than the senior committees of the CNT-FAI operating without a mandate. Nin had once tried to affiliate the union to the Comintern’s Red Labour International, having been left to make the decision on his own*. That error pales in comparison with those made during the war by authoritarians De Santillan, Montseny and Oliver, the pompous buffoon Marianet and the sinister Esgleas. In the end he showed more courage than the rest of them put together. To die in such horror, without knowing if one will be remembered as a hero, a traitor, or at all, displays immense personal integrity, humanity at its highest level. In doing so he undoubtedly saved thousands of lives.

* See Chapter Eleven.

Coincident with the Barcelona purge was the Huesca offensive; it was supposed to take the pressure off Bilbao. Starting on the 12th June, the confederal and POUM militia remaining in northern Aragon were fed to the fascists’ artillery and machine guns, repeatedly advancing across open ground without armoured support or artillery cover whilst the idle – and better armed – rearguard accused them of treason. The victors of Guadalajara, the 12th I.B., were also flung into the fire. Nine thousand antifascists had fallen by the time Mola’s army entered Bilbao on the 19th and the siege was called off. The back of libertarian Aragon was broken, ready for the Communists to move in for the kill.

News of the purge had been carefully concealed from the Aragon front; the Valencia and foreign press ran the spy stories but the Barcelona papers did not, and militians on leave in the city were all rounded up. A squad was sent to the front to arrest Josép Rovira, the ‘General’ of the POUM column, (now called the 29th Division) without the knowledge of either the Ministry of War or the chief of Police. I.L.P. representative and POUMista Bob Smillie was arrested at the French border for attempting to export two empty grenade bodies that were to be used for a fund-raising tour back home. He was held incommunicado in Valencia, denied legal representation, and died in jail, reportedly from appendicitis, though his body was disposed of before anyone could see it. Ethel MacDonald was convinced he had been assassinated by the secret police, and said so publicly. Orwell reports that:

“Bob Smillie was only twenty-two years old and physically he was one of the toughest people I have met. … Smillie’s death is not a thing I can easily forgive. Here was this brave and gifted boy, who had thrown up his career at Glasgow University in order to come and fight against Fascism, and who, as I saw for myself, had done his job at the front with faultless courage and willingness; and all they could find to do with him was to fling him into jail and let him die like a neglected animal.”

– George Orwell: ‘Homage to Catalonia’.

Georges Kopp made the following statement in 1938:

“The doctor states that Bob Smillie had the skin and the flesh of his skin perforated by a powerful kick delivered by a foot shod in the nailed boot; the intestines were partly hanging outside. Another blow had severed the left side connection between the jaw and the skull and the former was merely hanging on the right side. Bob died about 30 minutes after reaching the hospital.”

Having secured his discharge, Orwell arrived back in Barcelona to find it in the grip of a Stalinist reign of terror. After a risky visit to Kopp in prison, he met up with his fellow militians John McNair and Stafford Cottman. His wife Eileen joined them at the railway station and the four fled for their lives; noting on the journey to France that the trains once again had first and second class carriages, the revolution was over. The propaganda machine was prematurely reporting McNair’s arrest by the time they arrived but fortunately Trotskyism was not an extraditable offence. Jenny Patrick left in August but MacDonald remained until September, passing information to and from the dungeons and helping foreign anarchists to escape, until she was herself imprisoned. She organised a hunger strike, and used her contacts on the outside to continue smuggling out letters. The British press called her the ‘Scots scarlet pimpernel’. The whole sorry episode was much exploited by the bourgeois media and the fascists, who wanted to highlight the Soviet takeover of the republic.

“The Secret Service operating today in Spain comes by night and its victims are never seen again. Bob Smillie they didn’t dare to bump off openly, but he may have suffered more because of that. Your Ethel certainly believes his death was intended. She prophesied it before his death took place, and said he would not be allowed out of the country with the knowledge he had. What worries me more than anything is that Ethel has already been ill and would be easy prey for anyone trying to make her death appear natural.”

– Helen Lennox: letter to Ethel MacDonald’s mother
July 1937.

Treason charges were only brought against the POUM prisoners following the international outcry over Nin’s disappearance. Two international delegations visited Spain that year in the hope of shedding light on the matter.* James Maxton M.P., and John McGovern M.P. of the I.L.P. were welcomed by government ministers, but refused access to the Communists’ private prisons despite having ministerial authorisation to visit. Maxton had been represented in the P.C.E.’s ‘Mundo Obrero’ as a German agent, though not in the Daily Worker, as the C.P. fought shy of Britain’s libel laws. According to the defence minister Prieto there was no credible evidence for the Trotsky-fascist-POUM conspiracy and the arrests were illegal: “What is most grave is that the arrest of the POUM leaders was not decided upon by the Government, and the police carried out these arrests on their own authority. Those responsible are not the heads of the police, but their entourage, which has been infiltrated by the Communists according to their usual custom.” However, nothing could be done about it for fear of offending the Kremlin. Zugazagoitia, the Minister of the Interior, told McGovern: “We have received aid from Russia and have had to permit certain actions which we did not like.”

* Orwell (op. cit.)

With the end of the control patrols, the communists took over the remaining prisons and the CNT-FAI investigation service went underground, now playing a purely defensive role.

“The Revolutionary Neighbourhood Committees of Barcelona, which had arisen during the days of July 19-20, 1936, lasted until at least June 7, 1937, when the restored forces of public order of the Generalitat dissolved them and occupied the various headquarters of the Control Patrols, as well as some headquarters of the Defence Committees, such as the Defence Committee of the neighbourhood of Les Corts. Despite the Decree mandating the disbanding of all the armed groups, most of them resisted until September 1937, when the buildings they occupied were systematically assaulted and dissolved, one by one.

The last to be occupied, and the most important and strongest, was the headquarters of the Defence Committee of Central Barcelona, located in Los Escolapios de San Antonio, which was taken by assault on September 21, 1937 by Stalinists and the forces of public order, which used, in addition to armoured vehicles, an entire arsenal of machine guns and hand grenades. The resistance of Los Escolapios, however, did not yield to the force of arms, but to the evacuation orders issued by the Regional Committee. From then on the Defence Committees disguised themselves under the name of Sections of Co-ordination and Information of the CNT, and were exclusively devoted to clandestine tasks of intelligence and information, as they were prior to July 19; but now (1938) in a decidedly counterrevolutionary situation.”

– Augustín Guillamón:
‘From Defence Cadres to Popular Militias’.

With Caballero out of the way, his commanders’ (chiefly the disgraced Ascensio’s) plan to divide enemy territory by attacking the lightly-defended Extremadura was shelved. The Communists had done everything possible to sabotage the action, brazenly telling the P.M. he would have to do it without ‘their’ tanks and aircraft – the Republican air force being controlled more or less directly from Moscow. Instead the Communists planned a great set-piece around the village of Brunete, twenty-five kilometres west of Madrid, where they hoped to encircle and cut off the fascist troops menacing the capital. Although a small gain in territory allowed the propaganda machine to claim the operation as a victory; the main objective of cutting the Extremadura road and lifting the siege was not achieved. The area captured was approximately ten miles by eight and cost twenty-five thousand lives.*

* Republican casualties, the fascists lost about seventeen thousand.

The fascists were initially taken by surprise and Brunete was captured, but instead of pressing on with the tank advance time was wasted neutralising isolated pockets of resistance that could have been left to second-line troops. The fascists rapidly reinforced their position and deployed the Condor Legion; once they had air superiority they maintained a continuous bombardment and the republican advance stalled in the fierce heat. Russian commanders were so desperate to impress Stalin that they frequently claimed to be ahead of their actual positions, disrupting supplies and communications; Mera was furious at being sent to relieve a division that had already fallen back. The battle lasted three weeks and the Nationalists regained Brunete. The Republic also lost eighty percent of its armour; the Soviets’ influential tank theorist Marshal Tukhachevsky* had just been purged and his erstwhile colleagues were keen to distance themselves from him. To avoid suspicion of Trotskyism their tactics had to be hastily revised so instead of using the Trotskyist tactic of punching deep into enemy territory in columns they all spread out on a broad front and succumbed to the German bombers. Lister’s men were decimated and four hundred were shot for desertion after a disorderly retreat. Two hundred and fifty of El Campesino’s division deserted to Mera, who refused to send them back to certain death; Miaja supported him, although he’d joined the Party he would balk at shooting antifascists. Mera had twice before returned from the front mob-handed to secure the release of his own officers being held in the Chekas.

* The butcher of Kronstadt.

The International Brigades were in some disarray after Brunete, with a third dead and a third hospitalised, the remainder demoralised by the losses, the witch-hunting and the summary executions. Amongst their notable casualties were the African-American Captain Oliver Law and the openly gay Major George Nathan, refused membership of the P.C.E. for his sexuality. Those Brigaders less inclined to blind obedience turned on their officers with accusations of incompetence, and a few small mutinies were violently put down. Also killed was the pioneering photojournalist Gerda Pohorylle, a German exile, better known as Gerda Taro. Taro entered Spain with her former partner Andre Friedman, publishing their work under the name of Robert Capa, they produced the most striking images of the war. At Brunete she was with the Canadian writer Ted Allan* who served in the Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion, recording the haphazard finale to the battle, where General Walter had stationed machine guns at the rear to shoot deserters**. Walter told Allan to get her out of the way, or he would not be responsible for her safety. Taro refused, and shortly afterwards their car was hit by a Russian T26. In a narrative clouded by morphine and a leg injury, Allan reports being told that she was alright, then she wasn’t, her camera was nowhere to be found.

* Alan Herman, who first adopted the pseudonym to infiltrate a fascist group as Montreal correspondent for the Communist Party’s Daily Clarion. Allan survived the war and achieved success as a screenwriter; Friedman, as Robert Capa, went on to cover WW2, the Sino-Japanese war, Palestine and Vietnam.

** It’s a wonder they didn’t accuse him of Trotskyism.

Public rallies were held to mark the first anniversary of the coup and revolution, Montseny spoke at the Olympia Theatre in Barcelona, referring to the Communist-bourgeois witch hunt against those workers who had liberated the city on the 19th July.

“The bulk of the prisoners in Catalonia and Barcelona were not imprisoned as a result of the events in May. The procedure is a lot more decorous. Some gentleman or lady pens a letter to the President of the High Court and in that letter this “gentleman” or “lady”, a party member, complains that “in Puigcerdd on 19 July they killed the priest and they were this one, that one and the other one”. As a result of this denunciation a hunt begins for the body of the priest and a criminal investigation is launched. Already we have a sizeable number of CNT and FA1 militants behind bars.”

… We do not want to lose the war. And they are losing the war. They are losing us the war!”

– Federica Montseny: 21st July 1937.

Emma Goldman had been in Barcelona in September 1936 and visited the Modelo prison when it was under the control of the anarchists, she had been allowed to speak freely and privately with the (at that time) fascist prisoners held there, who had no complaints about their conditions. A year later she visited Valencia to enquire after some of her missing comrades, and encountered a brick wall. Returning to the Modelo in October she found it filled with antifascist volunteers from around the world, including members of the I.B.s, most were being held without charge*.

* ’Political persecution in Republican Spain’ by Emma Goldman, in ‘Spain and the World’, London, 10th December 1937.

The Military Investigation Service (S.I.M.) was created to catch all the fascist spies supposedly lurking in the Republican armed forces, overseen by Orlov, who was himself on borrowed time. It formalised the Russians’ private jails and terrorist methods. Networks of spies and informers were constructed using bribery and blackmail. Its unlimited powers of arrest, detention and interrogation attracted not only Party loyalists but the ambitious, unscrupulous, and those having proclivities relating to torture. It turned out at the end of the war, that a great many SIM operatives were fascists. This was hardly surprising, there weren’t many dedicated antifascists in the rearguard by 1938, and virtually everyone in the Communist Party had joined since the coup.

Recruiting from those who had no previous connection to left or libertarian politics was not only more fruitful in providing intelligence about potential fifth columnists, but ensured they would have fewer qualms about the torture and murder of those antifascists who fell foul of the commissars. This served both the P.C.E. and the nationalists, feeding propaganda about Trotskyism on one side and red terror on the other. So although the SIM did unmask enemy plotters its double agents did considerable damage and many innocents were caught in the net. The Soviets didn’t particularly care who killed who; they knew the war was lost and they had other fish to fry. Negrin acquiesced to the growth of this political police force whose agenda took precedence over strategic considerations and undermined even the military command structure. Azana of course, wouldn’t say boo to a goose.

“Diaz Baza, Vicente, and Santiago Garcés were the directors of SIM. The service had a budget of 22,000,000 pesetas. In Madrid alone it had 6,000 agents. These agents were assured a bonus of 30 percent of the value of whatever jewels they confiscated. Uribarri escaped abroad in April 1938, with several million pesetas in stolen jewels.

SIM soon became a spy network covering army units (companies, battalions, brigades, army corps) parties and organizations; even government offices were infiltrated by SIM agents. On the battlefront, SIM agents, located on all levels of the military hierarchy, had as much if not more power than commissars and officers. These agents were named by a mysterious process. A recently mobilised soldier could be transformed overnight into a SIM agent for a battalion or brigade, equal or superior in command to a captain or commander.

On the home front, SIM agents inspired fear even in the police. Every known SIM agent had another, secret one watching him. At first the Minister of National Defence was the only one who could name or remove agents, but a ruling in September, 1938, delegated this authority to the head of SIM.”

– Jose Peirats Valls: ‘Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution’.

One of the most macabre episodes of the Spanish Republic concerned the convent of Santa Ursula, a P.C.E. Cheka in which the Communists gave full vent to their obsession with destroying the personality. Individual courage did not sit well with Stalin’s take on dialectic materialism, which viewed a human as no better than a piece of meat at the mercy of its nervous system. A front line soldier might be brave with a gun at his back and a wage to feed his family, anything more was dangerous.

Following the rule that a nun never left her convent, the cellar had been used to inter the dead, and bodies were placed in alcoves around the walls to desiccate and mummify. On opening this catacomb, peasants engaged by the Communists to remove the corpses performed the hateful task carelessly and left it incomplete. The space was littered with body parts and became infested with rats.

Workers were arrested without explanation then simply cast into the charnel house and left there. In the foul air, among the decaying flesh, without light, food or water, the prisoner might presume they had been buried alive, but worse was to come, after hours or days they would be taken for interrogation. In the dungeons of Santa Ursula, antifascists were confined in wooden crates, narrow wardrobes and stone tombs designed to induce cramp in the limbs and spine, denied mental or physical rest with buzzers, bells, electric lights and sharp tiles protruding from the sloping floors. Some lost their minds and would sign anything placed before them without even reading it, others endured months of this treatment.

Once Stalin had neutralised his Marxist rivals in the POUM and the Caballero faction he was free to turn his attention to his chief enemy in Spain, the libertarian movement. No sooner was the CNT-FAI out of government than the P.C.E. commenced a war of words against it. It had repeatedly played up the lively disagreements between the senior committees and the rank and file, concluding that the anarchist movement had been infiltrated by the fifth column, and inflamed the situation by praising the ‘leadership’ for its moderation. Now it claimed to have uncovered yet another conspiracy and the National Committee, supported by the FAI and Libertarian Youth demanded proof – a concept alien to the Communists at that time, and to their view entirely superfluous. ‘Frente Rojo’ (Red Front) belatedly took umbrage at some remarks of Montseny criticising the U.S.S.R.

The 450 kilometre Aragon front in August 1937 had barely moved since the initial advance of the columns from Barcelona a year earlier. Without war materiel the militia could do no more than hold their ground and defend the collectives; nevertheless, surplus production was dutifully turned over to the central government in support of the war effort. It could be said that the libertarian experiment was a success; productivity across the region was up to fifty percent higher than the previous year. A record harvest was anticipated and the political infighting that blighted the rest of the country was absent, because the parties exerted no influence whatsoever. Although the Council included members of all the parties and unions, the people had no use for them. With control of production vested in the producers, there was nothing for them to do, no power to compete for. The morale of the front-line militia was underpinned by the certainty that the peasantry at their back would fight for every inch of their land. Stalinism would have been a very hard sell, in fact, only ten of the four hundred collectives adhered to the U.G.T. A social wage guaranteed a minimum standard of living; one drawback being that the pay differentials in non-libertarian Spain attracted skilled trades so there was a slow bleed of talent away from the region.

At the beginning of the month the Popular Front parties met in Barbastro, declaring that: “the policy of the Council of Aragón is mistaken and contrary to the interests of the region’s economy”, and called on the government to appoint a regional governor. On the 10th August a government decree abolished the Council and dismissed its members. Four divisions of the Republican army comprising P.C.E. and Esquerra columns under Enrique Lister attacked and dissolved the collectives by force. The Communist press justified the invasion of Aragon with the usual ridiculous slanders. The Aragonese were supposed to have been collectivised against their will and welcomed their liberators with open arms, in fact the troops had been told they were advancing across enemy territory and were shooting them on sight. The villages were put under military occupation and Confederal premises raided. Collective property was confiscated – or looted, depending on your point of view – and the land returned to bourgeois ownership. Communal stores were piled up as evidence of hoarding, then taken away to be hoarded by the Communists. The president of the defence council Joaquin Ascaso was arrested*.

* A sorry tale: Shortly after the May events two members of the National Committee, Máximo Peris García and Aurelio Pernia Álvarez were apprehended by Negrin’s Carabineros at the French border with a car full of gold bars and precious stones, having allegedly been instructed by Marianet to sell these for cash to purchase supplies. The latter persuaded Ascaso to accept responsibility for this illegal act, saying the money was for the agricultural collectives. This he did out of loyalty to the union. The leadership was thus spared from scandal but the Aragon Defence Council’s days were numbered.

Once it was all in the bag, and the news reached militant workers in the wider world, the rhetoric softened somewhat; not least because some of the villages voluntarily re-collectivised immediately the occupation was lifted and they had to be allowed to complete the harvest. Stalin appreciated, as we all know, that the casual newspaper reader has a fantastically short memory. An angry and demoralised peasantry set about the work half-heartedly, the government were going to take it all anyway. Many militians left the front. The Communists now had nothing to lose by capturing Zaragoza, which they assaulted with their remaining armour, led by a unit of the Red Army*. They committed the same tactical errors as at Brunete, compounded by a personal feud between the Communist commanders Modesto and Lister, and decided to attack Belchite instead, reducing it to rubble. The failures were attributed to Trotskyist infiltration, especially in the XIV International Brigade, whose commander Hans Sanje tortured a French officer to death, without shedding any light on the matter.

* The U.S.S.R. having renounced the Non-intervention Treaty.

“Statements in the Communist press itself support the notion of a political plot. They claimed that the glorious advance along the Ebro was due to the removal of the Council of Aragon and the use at the front of the clandestine arsenals discovered in the rear. The truth is that the libertarian militia of Aragon had received for the first time the arms and vital tactical support they had been requesting in vain since the beginning of the war. They knew how to use these materials so well that while most of the 11th Division was merely serving as police force for Governor Mantecôn, the 23rd Division and the 153rd Brigade* were taking the fortress of Belchite by frontal assault.”

– Jose Peirats Valls: ‘Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution’.

* The Land and Freedom Column.

The final and most bloody phase of the war in the North pitted Carlist fanatics against the Asturian miners, who held out for two months despite the aerial bombardment and being outnumbered two to one. The government’s attempted sea evacuation was foiled by Axis bombers and naval blockade. The Nationalists eventually entered Gijon on the 21st October and set up their machine guns in the bullring. Some of the defenders slipped into the Pyrenees to conduct a guerrilla campaign, and Republican prisoners being used for slave labour were able to pull off sabotage operations in the rear. With the Northern campaign concluded the fascists were free to put the Basque arms factories to use and concentrate their forces in the centre. Nazi Germany finally got its hands on the coal and iron ore it needed to prepare for the Second World War and the Condor Legion received a fleet of new Heinkel bombers. As each new Axis technology was tried and tested in Spain the old kit was handed over to the Spanish fascists.

The General Secretary of the Comintern, Georgi Dimitrov, had since October the previous year been making overtures to the Labour and Socialist International, and the International Federation of Trade Unions, with a view to agreeing a joint strategy on Spain. It didn’t help that the parties of the Second international were repelled by the Moscow show trials; a telegram of protest to the Soviet government was signed by the presidents and secretaries of both organisations, and resulted in their florid denunciation as reactionaries. Friedrich ‘Fritz’ Adler, Secretary of the L.S.I. wrote a blistering response to Dimitrov* ‘The Witchcraft Trial in Moscow’; after expressing his long-standing enmity to some of the defendants, and Trotsky, he ridicules the evidence against them, especially Holtzmann’s confession.

* Both men had themselves been defendants in famous political trials. Adler is best known for having assassinated the Austrian prime minister in 1916; Dimitrov for his acquittal on charges related to the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, during which he aggressively cross-examined Herman Göring.

On the 21st April 1937 delegates of a number of Communist parties met in Paris, and issued an appeal to the I.F.T.U. and L.S.I. for tripartite action to pressurise the British and French governments over non-intervention, however they couldn’t resist bickering about Trotskyism in their statement. In June 1937 Dimitrov sent them a telegram, proposing a joint committee to help the Spanish government. Coincidentally, in Spain the P.C.E. was once again angling for a merger with the Socialist Workers’ Party but was rebuffed by the Caballero faction. Now they set about ousting him as General Secretary of the U.G.T. a rival executive committee was set up comprising Communists and right-wing Socialists, forcing his resignation.

By the end of 1937 the entire republican zone was controlled by the P.C.E. Although on Stalin’s instructions it never held more than two ministries, its agents had penetrated every level of society and state terrorism reigned. Meeting on 15th and 16th January 1938 the Spanish politburo reported to the Comintern that the party was “the most powerful organization in Republican Spain”. The Catalanists had, in their turn outlived their usefulness, with all traces of revolutionary Catalonia erased, the central government rubbed their noses in it by relocating to Barcelona. For some, even the cause of antifascism had lost its appeal; many workers speculated that a home-grown dictatorship could be no worse than the one being imposed by Moscow. Diego Abad de Santillan remarked: “Whether Juan Negrin won with his Communist cohorts, or Franco won with his Italians and Germans, the results would be the same for us.”

“The thing for which the Communists were working was not to postpone the Spanish revolution till a more suitable time, but to make sure that it never happened. This became more and more obvious as time went on, as power was twisted more and more out of working-class hands, and as more and more revolutionaries of every shade were flung into jail. Every move was made in the name of military necessity, because this pretext was, so to speak, ready-made, but the effect was to drive the workers back from an advantageous position and into a position in which, when the war was over, they would find it impossible to resist the reintroduction of capitalism. Please notice that I am saying nothing against the rank-and-file Communists, least of all against the thousands of Communists who died heroically round Madrid. …

… In England the Communist war-policy has been accepted without question, because very few criticisms of it have been allowed to get into print and because its general line — do away with revolutionary chaos, speed up production, militarize the army — sounds realistic and efficient. It is worth pointing out its inherent weakness. In order to check every revolutionary tendency and make the war as much like an ordinary war as possible, it became necessary to throw away the strategic opportunities that actually existed. I have described how we were armed, or not armed, on the Aragon front. There is very little doubt that arms were deliberately withheld lest too many of them should get into the hands of the Anarchists, who would afterwards use them for a revolutionary purpose; consequently the big Aragon offensive which would have made Franco draw back from Bilbao, and possibly from Madrid, never happened. “

– Orwell: (op. cit.)

The winter of 1937-1938 was very harsh, and in December blizzard conditions around Teruel provided the Republic with cover to besiege the Nationalist salient; at times the weather was so bad the German bombers could not fly, but the Republic lost more aircraft. The town was captured twice, in house to house fighting, and lost twice. Around a hundred thousand troops died, of whom two-thirds were on the republican side*, in February they withdrew. Civilian casualties, from crossfire, cold and hunger were also high. The loss was followed by furious buck-passing between the rival Communist commanders, accusations of Trotsky-fascism and fifth-columnism flew back and forth. Professional non-Communist officers, and those who had joined the party just to smooth their way were generally disgusted with the political games being played in the middle of a war.

* Teruel resulted in one of the British Battalion’s two executions. It was not the policy of the Battalion to shoot deserters. Allan Kemp was caught with another volunteer attempting to switch sides in December 1938. He had with him a map of the British machine-gun positions. He was shot by firing squad not for desertion but for endangering the lives of his comrades.

– From Interview with Bob Cooney in
‘The Road to Spain: Anti Fascists at War 1936–1939’.

The Nazis’ blitzkrieg technique reached its full development in the bombardment that commenced the invasion of Aragon, with the deployment of the new Junkers 87, the Stuka dive bomber, followed by tanks and infantry. On the 12 March 1938, Negrin went to Paris to ask for arms and aircraft, the same day the Third Reich invaded Austria, in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. The ‘Anschluss’*, which terrified the French government, was met with abject appeasement by the British one, which signed a treaty with Italy whilst the latter’s submarines torpedoed its merchant fleet with impunity. France did however re-open the border and supply eighteen thousand tons of war materiel, prompting Franco to advance on Valencia to pre-empt French involvement. Negrin returned to heavy bombing raids over Barcelona from the Italian air force base in Majorca. The Republic was cut in two on the 19th April when the Carlists reached the Mediterranean, nevertheless the Levante had strong defensive positions and put up a fierce resistance, Valencia held, inflicting proportionately the heaviest losses of the war on the fascist troops.

* Austria had a Catholic-fascist government and was close to Italy, although it had never been part of Germany there was a sizeable constituency for unification, however terrorist operations by Austrian Nazis weakened their case. Hitler’s impatience to have his birthplace inside the Reich led him to launch an invasion ahead of a scheduled referendum on the subject. The occupation was followed by a highly selective plebiscite from which about ten percent of the eligible electorate were excluded. The ballot paper is rather comical; under its loaded question are two circles, a large one for ‘yes’ and a small one for ‘no’. The roundup of Jews, leftists and other potential opponents began within days.

Defence minister Prieto was the first to suspect the game was up in February and suggest suing for peace, which cost him his job. A close associate of Negrin, he had been extensively used by the Communists in their manoeuvres against the left and the anarchists, but now they turned on him. Dolores Ibarruri denounced him publicly on 27th February; Negrin sacked him on 5th April, and took over the Defence Ministry. Alvarez del Vayo became Foreign Secretary, and Prieto was sent to America to try and borrow money. For its own part, the P.C.E. wrote a script for Negrin to negotiate with the fascists, but not only had he nothing to bargain with, the document offered neither Franco nor Hitler anything they wanted. Franco’s new constitution granted him full autocracy, his ministers swore allegiance not to God or Spain but to Franco, in the name of those concepts. New laws placed all industry, and the press in the service of the head of state; the church was given responsibility for education. Herman Goering insisted on taking control of Spain’s mining industry to oversee the export of its mineral resources to the Reich, and the Condor Legion was briefly grounded in support of his case.

The Republic was saddled with Negrin’s authoritarian leadership, since he was Stalin’s man and the P.C.E. controlled the armed forces. It further overstretched its resources with the ambitious and ill-conceived Ebro offensive; the fascists had been creeping closer to the river, to cut off Catalonia. To deflect them away from Valencia, the republic counter attacked in July; it was entirely a Communist operation, calculated for propaganda effect, costly, long-winded and fruitless. Casualties on both sides were boosted by the obsolete obsession with capturing and holding ground at any cost, rather than inflicting damage on the enemy’s assets. The hastily assembled Army of the Ebro included conscripts as young as sixteen and Nationalist prisoners of war, who were automatically pardoned if they would enlist. Although the influence of the anarchist movement had dwindled beyond recognition, about sixty percent of the army of the Ebro were confederals and/or members of libertarian associations. Most of the officers were Communists of conviction or convenience.

“A secret F.A.I. – Federacion Anarquista Iberica – circular of September 1938 pointed out that of 7,000 promotions in the Army since May 5,500 had been Communists. In the Army of the Ebro out of 27 brigades, 25 were commanded by Communists, while all 9 divisional commanders, 3 army corps commanders, and the supreme commander (Modesto) were Communists. This was the most extreme case of Communist control, but the proportions for the Anarchists were nearly as depressing elsewhere. In all six armies of Republican Spain the Anarchists believed the proportions to be 163 Communist brigade commanders to 33 Anarchists, 61 divisional commanders to 9 Anarchists, 15 army corps commanders to 2 Anarchists (with 4 Anarchist sympathizers), and 3 Communist army commanders, 2 sympathizers and one neutral.”

– Hugh Thomas, ‘The Spanish Civil War’ 1961

Preceded by a commando raid, and with the element of surprise, the river crossing on the moonless night of the 24th – 25th July was initially successful but succumbed to two-to-one Axis air superiority. There was an inexplicable delay in deploying the air force; perhaps it had to await orders from Moscow. The Republican supply lines relied on pontoon bridges that were repeatedly destroyed by heavy bombing and opening the dams in the Pyrenees.

“The crossing of the Ebro at night was a remarkable performance. The pontoons consisted of narrow buoyant sections tied together and men would sit straddled across the junctions of these sections to hold them firm, because the Ebro was a very fast-flowing river. And then others went across in boats. The mules were swum across. We went across the pontoons carrying our weapons, our machine guns. We had light machine guns as well as the heavy ones. We had five machine gun groups in our Company. No two people had to be on one section at the same time. We got across all right, lined up and marched up to the top of the hill.

The Fascists got scared stiff. They had been about to celebrate Mass, some of them, down in the valley, and there were tons, great streams of white muslin, which had been part of the preparation for this mass. We used them as mosquito nets, as a matter of fact, later on.

But we crossed the Ebro and made a rapid advance towards Gandesa. The real fighting then began, because the Nazi German planes were sent back and they bombed us like the devil. However we got our machine guns set up and we defended ourselves. I think we maybe made a tactical mistake in not rushing down right past and round Gandcsa to prevent the Fascists fortifying it, which they did next day.”

– Tom Murray, antifascist: quoted in
‘Voices From the Spanish Civil War’ 1986.

Still hiding behind the non-intervention agreement, Britain proposed a withdrawal of foreign personnel in return for granting the Nationalists belligerent rights. With only a partial withdrawal on offer from the Axis, comprising mainly wounded or incompetent Italian Blackshirts who were going home anyway, Negrin offered to unilaterally repatriate the greatly depleted International Brigades, excepting exiles from fascist regimes who would acquire Spanish citizenship and be incorporated into the regular army.

Germany had designs on Czechoslovakia so Hitler had planned an invasion for the 1st October 1938, at the same time making preparations for hostilities against Britain and France should they interfere. Its bone of contention was Sudetenland, an industrial German-speaking region retained within the periphery of Czechoslovakia by the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nazi agitation amongst ethnic Germans led to hostilities between Czechs and paramilitary gangs based over the border. In the early hours of 30th September at the Munich Conference, representatives of Britain, France, and Italy ceded the disputed territory to the Third Reich over the heads of the Czech government, which was told it would be abandoned to its fate if it resisted.

The Munich Agreement soured relations between Russia and France, convincing Stalin he had backed a loser in the Western democracies. His unfinished business in Spain was the Barcelona show trials of the POUM leaders. The bar having been set incredibly high by Nin, his comrades rose to the challenge* and in the end none of the POUMistas succumbed to torture, threats or bribery. When the original defence counsel went into hiding, CNT-FAI engaged one of their own lawyers, Vicente Rodriguez Revilla. In the absence of evidence and without a single confession, the case for treason collapsed and the defendants were convicted instead of public order offences relating to the May events. Goldman commended the judge on his impartiality and believed their heavy prison sentences – which would depend on an unlikely continuity of administration – were simply to protect them from the Stalinists. Caballero, Montseny and Oliver testified for the defence and a submission from Trotsky himself was entered into evidence. It was a massive slap in the face for Stalin, who took no further interest in Spain; Britain and France likewise wanted the conflict over quickly. As the republic weakened militarily and economically, its value as a potential ally in the approaching pan-European war – on which Negrin had pinned his hopes – evaporated. The cost of re-building its armed forces after the losses at Ebro would be a prohibitive drain on countries that were still struggling to re-arm themselves; a neutral Spain would be a better prospect for the allies.

* “It [POUM] is a Marxist party and I have been and am absolutely opposed to Marxism, but that cannot prevent me from paying respects to the mentality and courage of Gorkin, Andrade, and their comrades. Their stand in court was magnificent. Their exposition of their ideas was clear cut. There were no evasions or apologies. In point of fact the seven men in the dock demonstrated, for the first time since the demoralization of all idealists in Russia, how revolutionists should face their accusers . At the end, after the prosecuting attorney had tried their patience to the breaking point, Gorkin, Andrade, Bonet, Gironella, Arquer, Escuder and Rebull rose to their full stature with their clenched fists held high in the air, sure of themselves and defiant against their enemies.”

– Emma Goldman, to ‘Vanguard’ November 1938.

In her many letters to Rudolf Rocker since the beginning of the social revolution, Goldman had expressed her growing dismay over the collaborationist tendencies within the C.N.T. especially Montseny, who she described as “a politician”, “a Lenin in skirts”. Like many foreign anarchists, she kept her criticisms, whilst recognising the magnitude of the challenges the Spaniards faced and appreciating what they had achieved under those circumstances. In particular she argued that they should have stopped appeasing the Communists after May 1937 as Soviet aid was already being run down while their comrades were being arrested and slaughtered.

The cracks were beginning to show, however. There were now fundamental differences between the C.N.T. National Committee, which defended Negrin’s government, and the FAI Peninsular Committee. A national plenum of regional libertarian organisations was held in Barcelona between 16th and 30th October 1938, two months before the fall of Catalonia. On her arrival Goldman was surprised to find erstwhile supporters of collaboration Herrera, Santillan, Montseny, and Esgleas now completely opposed to the policy. They submitted to Goldman and the other delegates an elaborate critique of the committee’s mistakes along with their charges against Negrin and the Communists. A commission was mandated to approach President Azaña with a view to getting Negrin replaced, but the latter had threatened him with the army and Azaña’s customary timidity won out.

“Although she found movement division quite deep, she reports also that both sides come together as a solid whole in the face of potential involvement by outsiders. This she regards as fortunate because an open split would destroy the CNT and FAI, a development their enemies would welcome. At the same time, she is confident that FAI opposition eventually will pressure morally the CNT to take a stronger, more effective stand against the Negrin regime and the Communists.

Despite these clashes, Goldman remains impressed with the outstanding courage and commitment shown at the plenum generally, at a time when Barcelona itself and the CNT headquarters were under bombardment. She reports that only several out of the large numbers of delegates left the meeting place for safety The rest continued their discussion as intensely as ever, an attitude Goldman finds unequalled any place else in the world.”

– ‘Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution’
edited by David Porter.

On the 29th October Goldman tells Rocker she is encouraged, even at this late stage, to see the FAl finally criticising state collaboration strongly, at least at anarchist gatherings. She did not speak on these matters at the plenum and remained circumspect about discussing them publicly. This was not due to any loyalty to the National Committee, however:

“It is because I realise that a real exposure of the treacherous part played by the Communists at this time would in the first place not be believed even by the anarchist critics and would probably work into the hands of Franco and his backers: but you may believe me that it cost me no amount of effort to control myself.”


Marianet remained firmly on the other side, he seemed to enjoy his role as a politician and questions were already being asked about his use of union funds. Like his predecessor Horacio Prieto, he was a ‘libertarian possiblist’ who integrated readily into centralising and bureaucratic structures. His appointment as Catalan, and susequently national, secretary of the C.N.T. was a fluke that cost the Spanish Working Class dearly. In the tradition of the Bakuninists who refused administrative positions in the First International, the most militant anarchists declined positions of responsibility to avoid the conflict of interest between revolutionaries and union officials. In the election for Catalan regional secretary, the winning candidate Marcos Alcón turned down the role, as did the runner-up, Germinal Esgleas, this left only Marianet with four votes – who according to García Oliver* had been put forward as a ‘joke’ by the builders’ union.

* Juan García Oliver: ‘El eco de los pasos’.
Barcelona, 1979. p183.

The invasion of Catalonia began on the 23rd of December. On the 1st of January Negrin called up all men between seventeen and twenty-five at the behest of the P.C.E. and with the apparent assent of the National Committee, notwithstanding the devastating effect this would have on Confederal organisation and socialised production. It deepened the rift with the FAI Peninsular Committee, who noted that the mobilisation would place all production under control of the state, and began an enquiry into the matter. A national plenum of the entire libertarian movement convened in Valencia on the 20th; it considered the decree was politically motivated, noting that only about a third of combatants were armed, whereas Negrin held two hundred thousand well equipped Carabineers in the rear for political purposes. They were only meant to guard the treasury – which was in Moscow – and enforce customs, not that anything was coming into the country in January 1939. A liaison sub-committee of the libertarian movement had been mandated to approach Miaja with a view to setting up a national defence junta. Negrin’s position was untenable but there seemed little point in formally removing him.

Pi Sunyer, the Esquerra’s mayor of Barcelona, told Azaña that “the Catalans no longer knew why they were fighting, because of Negrín’s anti-Catalan policy.”* Martial law was declared throughout the Republican zone on the 23rd and the government evacuated itself to France. Having recently betrayed Czechoslovakia the British government warned the French one it would receive no assistance if it intervened. Five thousand International Brigaders who had yet to be repatriated managed to get themselves armed by the Communist Party and were able to slow the advancing Italian army a little with a series of daring ambushes as they made their way to the border.

* Burnett Bolloten: ‘The Spanish Civil War: revolution and counterrevolution’ 1991.

Barcelona fell on 26th January 1939 after four days of aerial bombardment; the familiar carnage followed. The Luftwaffe divided its time between attacking refugees on the road and preventing stranded Republican aircraft from rejoining the fray in the centre. The Fascists banned the Catalan language, confiscated the printing presses and burned all the books, even local cultural practices such as the traditional ‘Sardana’ folk dancing were made illegal. Half a million refugees crossed into France only to be interned in work camps. A hundred and fifty volunteers from the Durruti Column stayed behind to slow the advance and cover the evacuation. The British and French governments recognised nationalist Spain on 27th February, and gave the fascists all Republican war materiel remaining on French soil, including the latest shipment recently arrived from Russia, and the Spanish gold on deposit in the bank of France.

Negrin telegraphed President Azaña, who had taken refuge in their embassy in Paris, to come and resume his post; but the butcher of Casas Viejas, who had fled from Madrid to Valencia, then to Barcelona, and back, and forth, at every turn putting his own safety before the momentous considerations of his life and times, resigned instead, declaring the war lost and “further sacrifice useless”. The rest of the government followed suit; Martinez Barrio offered to return and conduct a presidential election, but only to negotiate a surrender. CNT-FAI officials meeting in Paris doubted Negrin’s sincerity in continuing to prosecute the war, suspecting him of preparing a selective evacuation using the Communists’ control over the military, just to get his money out of the country. Negrin promoted Modesto and Lister, Val flew back to Madrid, Rojo refused to leave France, Miaja said he would fight on.

Before the Communist coup became a fait accompli, on 4th March, Segismundo Casado, commander of the Republican Army of the Centre, established the anti-Negrin National Defence Junta with Cipriano Mera and the socialist Julián Besteiro. Its priority would be the evacuation of the republican army, and minimising civilian casualties. Contact was made with the enemy and with British diplomats who offered to mediate and try to obtain guarantees, considering the army would get better terms than a Communist-controlled government.

Franco however was not about to share credit for saving Spain from Stalin, and would accept no conditions. He portrayed the entire Popular Front as a criminal conspiracy and decreed a law of political responsibilities, making it retrospectively an offence to have resisted the nationalist movement, by any means, active or passive, at any time since 1934, thereby giving himself impunity to prosecute any actual or potential disloyalty. On 6th March José Miaja joined the junta and began arresting Communists in Madrid. On his way into exile, Negrin ordered Luis Barceló, commander of the First Corps of the Army of the Centre, to try and regain control of the capital. His troops were defeated by Mera’s 14th Division and he was shot. Casado’s attempt to negotiate an orderly transfer of territory and equipment collapsed when bad weather and equipment failure delayed the handover of the air force. Franco had no interest in limiting casualties, wishing to eradicate all traces of the Second Republic.

On the 27th March the remaining fighters withdrew and evacuation began in earnest; most headed for Alicante, the furthest port from the front, vainly anticipating the compassion of the liberal democracies. About four thousand were taken prisoner by Italian troops on the 4th of April, and subsequently executed; many chose suicide over surrender.

Of course the decade ended with the outbreak of the long-anticipated Second World War. When it finally got underway, both dictators cautiously hedged their bets. Franco declared Spain neutral whilst availing the Kriegsmarine of its coastal facilities and planning an invasion of Gibraltar. Franco’s terms for entering the war included that territory plus all French possessions in Africa and a great deal of military equipment. The price was too high, and Hitler had already promised the Mediterranean to Mussolini. It was agreed that Spain would join Germany in attacking Gibraltar when it was ready but Franco bottled at the last minute. Meanwhile German and British agents worked on the faultlines in the Falange by bribing various generals to pull the regime one way or the other. The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact abruptly terminated Stalin’s opposition to fascism, which he appeased by embracing anti-Semitism and removing Jewish officials from their posts. Shortly after Germany invaded Poland, Russia invaded Finland*. When the Reich eventually reneged on the deal, it was fought as the ‘Great Patriotic War’. The people’s war against fascism had turned into an imperialist turf war; six years and sixty million deaths later, the great powers would carve up Europe between themselves, and the cold war gave Franco the opportunity to re-align his regime with the West.

* Though heavily outnumbered, the resistance of Finnish guerrillas was ferocious, in the end about 11% of the territory was ceded to the U.S.S.R.

Spain’s maverick fascism was to be one of the most durable and refined examples of the genre. Altogether Franco killed more of his countrymen than Hitler did, but he had thirty-five years to do it. The executions went on for years and untold numbers died from disease and neglect in the corrupt prison system. The garrotte was retained and even drinking water was withheld from the disobedient. Thousands of prisoners of war were starved in concentration camps or consumed on grandiose and impractical civil engineering projects. Peirats estimates a third of the Spanish population was incarcerated one way or another. It’s instructive to note that Stalin’s materialist misanthropy and Franco’s metaphysical necrophilia produced very similar results. Having rescued Spain from Bolshevism, Franco’s obsession with Freemasonry resurfaced, meanwhile under its mediaevalist rhetoric his one-party state walked the invisible line between state-capitalism and National Socialism.

The command economy, like its Soviet counterpart, was wasteful and inefficient even by the standards of pre-war Spain. A vertical bureaucracy moulded the entire society in the dictator’s image, with state-run associations for workers, employers and students controlling all access to the economy and cultural life. The wealth and prestige of the church was restored, but it was expected to adhere strictly to its function of policing the minds of the people; it resumed responsibility for education, with a rigidly prescribed syllabus. Likewise the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, whose title to the means of production was purely nominal, also worked for the one boss. The façade of religion, property and cultural tradition had no more significance in Nationalist Spain than did Marxist theory in the U.S.S.R.; all were pressed into the service of the leader’s personality cult. In both regimes, membership of the Party was a prerequisite for advancement, faulty propaganda was treasonable, and fear of independent thought kept the firing squads busy.