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Morrow on Spain

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From: “International” Volume 2, Number 3, Summer 1974, pp. 40-42 (Theoretical Journal of the International Marxist Group – British Section of the Fourth International). Thanks to Joseph Auciello

Felix Morrow’s Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain remains the best Marxist analysis of the Spanish revolution of 1936-37 and its tragic ending.  Other works, written since and drawing upon extensive new source material, give a more detailed account of the events and struggles (social and political) which marked these dramatic years, and of those which led up to them. (1)  But none are equal, leave alone superior, to Morrow in their analysis of the basic class forces at work, the inevitable clash between them and the outcome of the contest, decided by the lack of revolutionary leadership or clear political consciousness on the part of the toiling masses.  Morrow explains the key episodes of revolution and counter-revolution in Spain in terms of social forces.  He confirms to the hilt Trotsky’s diagnosis that the strategy of the Stalinists and their various allies and hangers-on (‘First win the war, then complete the revolution’), ignoring the realities of the class struggle and seeking to replace it by political manipulation, could only lead to disaster: first strangle the revolution and then lose the war.

The extensive memoir literature which has sprung up since Morrow’s book was first published in 1938 has brought to light new evidence which, if anything, further strengthens Morrow’s basic analysis.  The key responsibility of Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy in imposing their counter-revolutionary course upon the Spanish Communist Party has been confirmed by witnesses from the top leadership of that party. (2)  The grim details of the GPU’s attempts to export to Spain its techniques of mass arrest, torture, murder and frame-up trials of revolutionists (slandered as being ‘Franco’s fifth column’) are well-known today – as is its political failure.  Nobody believed the Stalinist slanders.  The workers were dismayed by the political terror.  Franco could play on and utilize the tremendous demoralization created in the Republican ranks.  When the surviving POUM leaders were finally brought to trial, they were sentenced not for being ‘agents of Franco’, but for the ‘crime’ of advocating… the dictatorship of the proletariat.

It is interesting that even inside the Soviet Union, and in spite of the tight thought control which the bureaucracy maintains upon all fields of social science, the Komintern and Spanish CP line of the period 1936-9 is today being questioned, albeit in cautious terms. (3)  This line – together with the theory and practice of ‘social-fascism’, which made a decisive contribution to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany; the policies of forced collectivization, which created more than thirty years of continuous crisis in Soviet agriculture; and the mass purges of 1936-8, which murdered the whole surviving cadre of the Bolshevik party and the cream of the Red Army command, thereby paving the way for the military disasters of summer and autumn 1941 which brought the Soviet Union within an inch of military collapse – is one of the major crimes of Stalin upon which history has already unequivocally spoken its verdict.

The defeat of the Spanish revolution was not just a minor incident on a secondary battlefield.  It was the key event which led to the second world war and the spread of fascism over the whole continent of Europe, up to the gates of Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad.  Hitler’s conquest of power in Germany started to tip the scales in favour of counter-revolution on that continent.  It dealt a deadly blow to the largest, best organized and politically most conscious part of the European proletariat.  But Hitler’s victory was by no means stable, nor was his conquest of Europe inevitable.  The tremendous upsurge of revolutionary militancy of the Spanish working class in 1936, supported by a wave of general strikes in France and Belgium and by a world-wide radicalization of working-class struggles which even hit the USA (with the powerful sit-down strikes leading to the emergence of the CIO), could have pulled the rug from under Hitler’s feet.  In summer 1936, his army was still very weak, and no match for the Red Army.  A victorious Spanish revolution spreading to France would have provoked a powerful working-class echo in Italy and Germany. (4)  History could have taken an entirely different course.  A defeated Spanish revolution condemned the working-class upsurge in France, Belgium and elsewhere to decline and demoralization and opened the road to Hitler’s conquest of Europe.

In that sense, Stalin’s policy of sacrificing the Spanish revolution to his diplomatic game with the French and British imperialists cannot even be seen as a subordination of world revolution to the ‘national interests’ of the Soviet Union.  For his betrayal of the Spanish revolution dealt a powerful blow to the immediate interests of military self-defence of the USSR as well.  This policy reflected the basic conservatism of the privileged ruling stratum of Soviet society, its panic fear lest any important extension of world revolution upset the status quo of social forces internationally and nationally – a status quo which determines the political passivity of the Soviet working class and makes the bureaucracy’s rule possible.

A similar hostility against any proletarian revolution, anywhere in the world, was shown by Stalin and his successors towards the Yugoslav, Chinese and Cuban revolutions.  The Vietnamese communists are witnessing a repetition of this sordid spectacle at this very moment.  The basic difference between Spain 1936 and the postwar developments is the change in the international balance of class forces.  In the first instance, the change in the strength of the revolutionary upsurge has precisely meant that whereas it was possible for the Soviet bureaucracy to strangle the Spanish revolution, its subsequent efforts to achieve analogous results have culminated in failure.  This has been due not only to the change in the balance of class forces, but also to the fact that local communist parties or independent revolutionary forces have been ready to break decisively with the Menshevik orientation Stalinism.

The Spanish revolution also gave the most convincing historical testimony against the spontaneist view which implied that a mass upsurge in itself would be sufficient to bring about a victorious socialist revolution, provided it be broad enough.  Never before in history had one witnessed a generalized upsurge such as that of July 1936, when the Spanish workers broke the fascist army’s insurrection in practically every major city of the country, and in a significant part of the countryside as well.  Never before had the spontaneous taking over of factories, public service centres, big landholdings, by the toiling masses been so widespread as in these days in Spain.

Nevertheless, the revolution was not victorious.  No unified and centralized power structure was set up by the toiling masses.  Confronted with this key question of any revolution, the anarchist leaders, who had been educating the masses in the doctrine of immediate ‘suppression’ of the state, were a decisive force in preventing the revolutionary masses -- many of whom were anarcho-syndicalists – from setting up their own workers’ state – thereby accepting de facto the resurgence of a bourgeois state, complete with repressive apparatus.  The fact that the same anarchist leaders first participated in this resurgence as members of a coalition government with the bourgeoisie, and then became in their turn victims of the repression which they had helped to make possible, only tends to underline the main lessons of July 1936.  The anti-capitalist militancy, revolutionary drive and heroism of the masses can, under specific circumstances, go beyond anything foreseen by revolutionaries themselves.  But without the actual destruction of the bourgeois state machine and its replacement by a new workers’ state, no socialist revolution can be victorious.  And such a new workers’state cannot be built without a centralized leadership, by spontaneous struggles alone. 

Stalin’s diplomatic game -- largely built on illusions – was the immediate cause which led to the defeat of the Spanish revolution.  The Soviet bureaucracy’s interests as a parasitic social layer in society provide, in the last analysis, the material explanation for these counter-revolutionary policies.  But an important mediating factor between the two was wrong, Menshevik theory of ‘revolution by stages’, applied to Spain (with a special ‘anti-fascist’ variant) not only be the main Comintern politicians, but also by not a few of their social-democratic and centrist allies (not to speak of the ‘liberal’ bourgeois politicians who swallowed the theory with great enthusiasm).  Spain being a backward country, the revolution on the agenda was supposed to be a bourgeois-democratic one.  Thus the task was seen as being to defend bourgeois democracy, the democratic Republic, against fascism, the monarchy and the ‘semi-feudal landowners’: not to carry to its logical end the workers’ and peasants’ struggle against exploitation and oppression, by a process of permanent revolution which would lead to workers’ power and solve in passing those tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution which the peculiar history of Spanish capitalism had left unsolved.

Today, with Franco still in power thirty-odd years after the end of the civil war, the Spanish CP and the various centrist groupings are desperately clinging on to the same fundamental strategy.  They are more firmly attached than ever to their disastrous conception of a ‘revolution by stages’.  The first stage must be the restoration of ‘democracy’.  In fact, the CP is even ready to abandon the concept of a democratic Republic, and to accept the restoration of the monarchy, provided democratic liberties could be restored in that way.  Then will come a stage of parliamentary democracy, during which the CP and ‘other democratic forces’ will fight for reforms.  Only when in this way the ‘majority’ of the Spanish people has been won over (presumably in elections), the struggle for socialism – through a new intermediary stage of an ‘advanced democracy’ – will be put on the agenda.

The secret hope of the CP has been that somehow the capitalists themselves would gradually ‘liberalize’ the senile bonapartist military dictatorship of Franco (the absence of any petty-bourgeois mass base in support of the regime makes it impossible to call it fascist anymore).  That is why it has favoured Spain’s entering the Common Market (the Spanish social-democrats ardently share these same hopes and illusions).  As democracy granted from above has shown itself to be an utter illusion, the line shifts towards ‘democracy’ conquered from below, through a ‘peaceful general strike’, supported by all ‘democratic’ political forces (including the liberal monarchists).  As in 1936, political manoeuvres completely replace any sober assessment of basic social forces.

It would be foolish to deny that many changes have occurred in Spanish society since the civil war of 1936-9.  After many years of isolation, Spanish capitalism was in the fifties sucked into the big boom of the Western European imperialist economy.

Through the tourist boom and through the massive emigration of rural and urban unemployed absorbed by the Western European economy, the home market was significantly broadened to trigger off an important industrialization process.  Today, Spain has become essentially an industrialized country, in which the absolute majority of the population is living in towns and in which the industrial working class has become the numerically most important class in society.

Of course it remains significantly backward compared to imperialist countries like West Germany, Britain, France, or Italy.  Its industry is still unable to sustain real competition on the world market.  Its exports are still overwhelmingly agricultural.  Many of its southern and western regions remain sharply under-developed.  The nationality question, especially among the Basques, remains an uncured cancer.  Nevertheless, if presenting Spain as being on the threshold of a bourgeois-democratic revolution was already utterly wrong in 1936, it is simply ludicrous today.

After a long slumber, determined by both terrible repression – that which followed Franco’s victory was as murderous as the civil war itself – and by lack of perspective or self-confidence, the Spanish working class, since the early sixties, has begun steadily to rise again.  Innumerable strikes and other skirmishes have started to form a new militant vanguard in the factories, the working-class districts and the universities.

Initially, the capitalists tried consciously to limit this upsurge to immediate economic demands (‘trade-unionism pure and simple’).  But the very nature of the dictatorship caused this strategy to fail.  The new militancy could not but take up the struggle to free political prisoners; the struggle for autonomous trade unions; the struggle for freedom of the press; of organization and of demonstration; the struggle for self-determination of the oppressed nationalities.  Thereby, economic and political demands were closely intertwined.  After some ups and downs, and in spite of the state of emergency proclaimed by the dictatorship, since 1969 large strike waves have spread in the Basque country, in the Barcelona region, in Madrid, in Asturia and even in the backward areas of Galicia, linking economic demands with solidarity movements against repression.

As the weight of the working class is absolutely decisive in all these struggles, and as this class has started to fight for its own independent class interests, it is absolutely unrealistic to expect it to limit itself voluntarily ‘in a first stage’ to the restoration of bourgeois democracy.  Workers who start to occupy factories, who are learning to take on the police and the army, will not engage in a decisive test of strength with brutal opponents just to hand over the fruits of their victories meekly to their own exploiters.  It is inevitable that the coming Spanish revolution will have a proletarian, socialist character from the beginning, i.e. will be determined by working-class actions and will open the possibility of the conquest of power by the proletariat.

This does not mean that democratic demands cannot play an important rôle in triggering off this revolution, nor that no intermediary period of even a few months is possible between the overthrow of the Franco regime and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.  It only means that the leadership of the working class will once again – as in 1936 – be the decisive factor in the situation. 

But the chances for such an interregnum to last would be even more limited than they were between 1931 and 1936.  If anything, the industrial development which Spain has known since then has made the social contradictions in that society even more explosive than they were at that time.  The misery of the unemployed, the rural poor, the victims of structural decline, would rapidly combine with the much increased objective strength of the working class to shake bourgeois society to its very foundations.  The capitalist class would rapidly find out that it has not got the means to buy off the revolutionary social forces with reforms.  Mass repression would quickly become once again the basic strategy of the ruling class.  Having tasted the wine of organizational freedom, the working class would not submit passively to that repression, any more than it was ready to do so in 1934 or 1936.

The most likely variant in any case is that only a revolutionary general strike could overthrow the Spanish military dictatorship (whether under Franco or under Juan Carlos); that dual power would arise from that revolutionary general strike; that the question of a Federation of Iberian Workers Republics would therefore be put on the agenda through the very downfall of the dictatorship itself.  Because it is conscious of that likely perspective, the Spanish bourgeoisie continues to prefer the dictatorship, lacking any realistic alternative.

A new generation of Spanish revolutionaries is being created today, in conjunction with the rise of mass worker and student struggles.  This generation is assimilating the lessons of the 1936-9 civil war.  It is still weak in comparison with the gigantic tasks which history has placed before it – but it is much stronger than the handful of Trotskyists who existed in Spain during the crucial weeks and months described by Felix Morrow in this book.  The coming Spanish revolution will play a key rôle in the unfolding of the socialist revolution in Western Europe – a process which has started again with May ’68 in France.  To help the Spanish revolutionary Marxists build a strong Leninist party, a powerful Spanish section of the Fourth International, is today one of  the most urgent tasks of revolutionaries the world over.  The republication of this book is a timely contribution to that task.

Review Article: Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, New Park Publications, £1.25 / 75p.


1.  For instance: Pierre Broué and E. Témime, La Révolucion et la Guerre d’Espagne, Paris 1961.  Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, London 1965.

2.  A former member of the Political Bureau of the Spanish Communist Party during the civil war, Jesus Hernandez, in 1953 published a stinging indictment of Stalin’s and the GPU’s intrusion into CP politics during the civil war, Yo fui un ministro de Stalin, (‘I was Stalin’s Minister’).  In order to destroy a convenient legend, it is necessary to insist upon the key rôle which Togliatti played, as the main Comintern representative in Spain, both in imposing upon the Spanish CP the right-wing line of ‘revolution in stages’ (see his article ‘On the particularities of the Spanish revolution’, reprinted in his collected essays: Sul Movimento Operaio Internazionale, Rome 1964) and in the actual organization of the GPU terror in Spain.  Fernando Claudin also confirms this analysis in his La Crisis del Movimiento Communista, Paris 1970 (French translation, Maspéro, 1972).

3.  E.g. by K. L. Maidanik, The Spanish Proletariat in the National-Revolutionary War, Moscow 1960.  The author admits that in July 1936 the workers had actually started to conquer power, and had far outgrown the limits of a bourgeois-democratic revolution.  His book was later the subject of violent criticism in the Soviet Union.

4.  Desertions did indeed occur, not merely among the Italian troops engaged in Spain against the Republicans, but even among the selected pilots of Hitler’s air force sent to help Franco, the Condor Legion (see Walter Görlitz, Der Deutsche Generalstab, Frankfurt, p. 442).  


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