Dismembering history: How Trotskyism “remembers” the Spanish Civil War

2006 sees the 70th anniversary of the fascist rebellion which triggered a three-year people’s war in defence of the Spanish Republic against General Franco’s fascist rebels, who were lavishly assisted by German and Italian fascism, and were further strengthened by the embargo on supplies to the beleaguered Republic imposed by Britain, France and the USA on the false pretext of “non-intervention”.

The Soviet Union, by embracing the liberation struggle of the Spanish people as her own, by supplying food, medicine, armaments and military advisors to the Republic, and by organising the despatch of some 35,000 fighting men through the International Brigades, stood proudly at the shoulder of the Spanish people. At this testing time the Soviet Union alone, out of all the states in the world, carried out its duty under international law and its class duty of proletarian solidarity, giving unstinting assistance to the Spanish Republic and the Spanish toilers.

The world knows that the people’s war was lost in 1939. Yet in the course of three years of the most bitter armed struggle, the Spanish toilers and their class allies demonstrated to the world just what could be achieved against fascism when it was challenged by the heroism of a people risen in arms and welded into a united fighting force under the influence of Communist leadership.

Again and again in the course of those three long years the Republican forces went onto the attack against the numerically and technically hugely superior fascist forces. And even after the fall of Catalonia, it was the treachery of non-communist members of the Popular Front which sealed the fate of the Republic, not the disposition of the forces on the ground. The Spanish Communist Party certainly did not accept that the situation, though very difficult, warranted a policy of surrender to the fascist hordes. 700,000 Republican troops still remained in the liberated areas, and international contradictions within the crisis-stricken imperialist camp might yet have tipped the balance in the Republic’s favour.

In fact, when the social democratic wing of the Popular Front adopted the craven policy of surrender, the Socialist Party leader Casado could only carry this policy through by sacking all the Communists from their military posts and throwing 12,000 Communists into jail. It was only by snatching from the hands of the people their own Communist leaders that social democratic defeatism was able to open the door to Franco.

This is how all of progressive humanity remembers the brave struggle of the Spanish Republic, and the staunch support that struggle received from the Communist-organised International Brigades and from the Soviet Union. Nor is it forgotten how the same Soviet Union then went on to make history by her destruction of the Hitlerite war machine and her crucial role in the liberation of Europe from fascist tyranny.

Trotskyite lies about the Spanish Civil War

However, this is not how the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) wishes to “remember” the Spanish Civil War. In a recent leaflet put out in Bristol inviting the public to a meeting entitled “Remembering the Spanish Civil War”, the SWP offer a very different version of history, a version in which the Communists and the Soviet Union feature, not as the most steadfast allies of the Republic, but as obstacles to the revolutionary advance of the Spanish toilers. In order to make this lie stick, they have to call white black, and black white. The unique and unstinting material support rendered by the Soviet Union, at a time when the Western “democracies” were assisting the fascist aggressors by imposing an embargo on the Republic, is by this alchemy transformed into some fiendish plot by the “Stalinists” to crush the revolution. According to this gibberish, “… the newly arising ruling class in Russia around Stalin used the monopoly of control of the supplies to the government to prevent the development of the revolution”. What does this rigmarole boil down to? Just this: since they cannot deny that no state other than the Soviet Union was prepared to offer supplies and assistance to Republican Spain, these frauds resort to the calumny that this unsought “monopoly of control of the supplies” was itself just a trick to hold back the revolution. Perhaps the SWP would like to tell us the location of that great long queue of capitalist states which Moscow must presumably have shouldered aside to secure this “monopoly”!

The question of who assisted and who retarded the survival of the Republic and the development of the revolution is best settled by reference to historical fact, not the tortured semantics of those caught out in a historical lie and hiding behind wordplay. So we should ask: what did Trotskyism do in the Spanish war?

Trot disruption of the Popular Front

The fascist revolt of July 1936 aimed to suppress not only the workers and peasants of Spain, but also those elements of domestic Spanish capitalism whose interests ran counter to those of the unholy alliance forged between world imperialism and the rotten “cacique” system of feudal landlordism. Together, these two forces had long stifled Spain’s national democratic development. For this reason, it was not alone workers and peasants who rallied to the Republic, but also progressive sections of the bourgeoisie.

That being so, the efforts of the Communists to draw all anti-fascist forces behind a united Popular Front were crucial, both to the survival of the Republic and to the advance of the revolution. This task was complicated by the disorganising influence of both social democracy and anarchism upon the working class. Yet by the 1930s the Spanish communism had already become a force to be reckoned with, and in the course of the war did much to secure the hegemony of the proletariat over the Republican movement.

By contrast, the misleadingly styled “Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity” (POUM for short), a Trotskyite outfit whose most illustrious adherent was the “democratic socialist” and police spy, George Orwell, did their damnedest to hamper the unification of progressive forces.

POUM’s disruptive influence was on full display when the Communists took the lead in organising the celebrated Fifth Regiment. In July 1936, it had been the workers themselves, without effective organisation, with hardly any ammunition and relying on their own courage and initiative, that had decisively rebuffed the fascist forces closing in on Madrid. This outburst of revolutionary energy successfully drove back the fascist threat, and revealed the huge untapped revolutionary creativity of the toiling masses. However, the people of Madrid also learned by this experience how much more effective their efforts would be when properly organised and disciplined. Understanding that it was the Communists who were prepared and ready to organise militarily, in a professional manner, the cream of Madrid’s workers rallied to join the Fifth Regiment. As in the Red Army, every unit had its own political commissar, tasked to promote a new kind of discipline, one that was conscious and voluntary rather than imposed, and therefore all the more effective. So successful did this model prove that it came to be adopted throughout the People’s Army, so bringing to an end the criminal waste of life hitherto occasioned by the division of the troops into rival political factions, whose squabbles resulted in some needless military disasters.

This development, which strengthened the anti-fascist war effort (and thereby created the best possible conditions for the development of the revolution), was not to the taste of Trotskyism, however. In a fit of crass ultra-left pique, POUM denounced as reactionary the very idea of a People’s Army, clinging instead to their own insistence on a purely “Workers’ Army”. In the same vein, they wanted to take control of the army away from the Popular Front and hand it to a military council elected from the workers’ organisations. Yet no surer way of disrupting the common front against the most urgent threat to the Spanish toilers, destroying the alliance between worker and peasant, and thereby setting back the struggle to defend the Republic and to maintain proletarian hegemony over the Republican movement, could have been devised than this light-minded playing at revolution. Nor did these petty-bourgeois masters of the revolutionary phrase shrink even from denouncing the soldiers of the People’s Army as no different from the “headless automatons who so efficiently click their heels and do or die for Hitler and Mussolini”.

POUM likewise denounced the Communist proposal for a unified police force under Popular Front control, alleging in their paper (La Batalla, 16th December 1936) that such proposals amounted to an attempt to “crush the creative revolutionary instinct of the proletariat” (or as the airy SWP phrase would have it, hinder “these possibilities for socialism from below”). But the facts tell a different story. The workers’ patrols, which had dealt with the fascists during the July rebellion, had since then gone off the rails. This is best illustrated by the events at La Faterellas. The peasants of this village, in the course of resistance to an ill-judged forced collectivisation, shot two Anarchists. The tragedy was compounded when a maverick workers’ patrol arrived from Barcelona and wiped out half the men of the village in reprisal. Yet the Communists’ sensible proposal to bring the patrols back under Popular Front discipline had POUM foaming that “This offensive of the Stalinists cannot succeed and will not succeed”. Similar ultra-“left” demagogy greeted the Communists when they warned against such excesses as the burning down of churches and monasteries, sensibly pointing out that such activities were a propaganda gift to fascism. Nothing would please Franco more than to see religious-minded peasants needlessly alienated from the Republican movement through a failure to curb such excesses. Needless to say none of this impressed those whose petty-bourgeois revolutionism immunised them against any and every manifestation of proletarian discipline.

(Of course, when it is a case of a well-judged and successful revolutionary attack on the oppressive privileges of a landholding minority – as in the revolutionary land redistribution recently accomplished in Zimbabwe’s Third Chimurenga, under the leadership of ZANU-PF – Trotskyism can see nothing but the occasional excesses which necessarily accompany such an enormous explosion of popular score-settling. In Spain these unfortunate excesses were egged on by Trotskyism, the better to disunite the Popular Front. In Zimbabwe, similar excesses are seized upon as an excuse to unite with British imperialism in rubbishing the achievements of the Zimbabwean people and personally demonising Robert Mugabe.)

Playing at Revolution

In their leaflet, the SWP raises the question of collectivisation of agriculture in the liberated areas, in order to lend colour to its allegations that “socialism from below” was stifled by Communists. According to this old slander, the Communists wilfully held back the class struggle in the Spanish countryside because they secretly wanted to hold back the revolution – presumably in the interests of the “newly arising ruling class in Russia around Stalin”! A glance at the actual circumstances in which these class struggles were unfolding, however, soon puts paid to these childish fables. In September 1936 the Republicans, having secured the whole of Catalonia as a liberated area, pressed on into Aragon, and seemed set fair to recapture this province too. But this advance stuttered to a halt, dogged by problems in the rearguard. The Spanish historian R. Tamames tells us that

“In Barcelona, while Madrid was short of food, people were living as though there were not a war on. Production was declining because of Anarchist collectivisation. The CNT-FAI [the Anarchists], instead of facilitating the advance on the Aragonese territory, to which they had made an extremely important contribution, dedicated itself to making a revolution, and to undermining republican power by creating entities such as the Consejo de Aragon. The lesson to be learnt from the collapse of the advance in Aragon was clear: to win the war and to carry out a libertarian revolution at the same time was simply impossible.”

Yet it was not the Anarchists alone who made this mistake, but also the “Marxists” of POUM, who likewise advocated a policy of forced collectivisation, thereby risking the alienation of the peasantry and the starvation of the workers.

The Communist position on this question was clear. “Collective farms must not be established by force,” Stalin insisted, adding, “That would be foolish and reactionary”. He told delegates to the 16th Congress of the CPSU(B) that they needed to recognise that “the proclamation of a slogan is not enough to cause the peasantry to turn en masse towards socialism”. Instead, “the masses of the peasantry themselves should be convinced that the slogan proclaimed is a correct one and that they should accept it as their own”. Trotskyism, always happy to assist imperialism in slandering the collectivisation achievements of the Soviet Union, had no problem in urging collectivisation itself – just so long it was at the wrong time, in the wrong place and in the wrong way.

Defeat of the POUM Putsch

The long overdue exclusion of Trotskyism from the Popular Front government (which POUM had spent every waking hour undermining) marked the beginning of the adoption of a united policy in Republican Spain, in place of the sham unity which had only impeded resolute action by the government in defence of the Republic against fascism. In Trotskyism’s final “contribution” to the fight against fascism, POUM called for an insurrection against the Popular Front government. The ignominious defeat of this provocation, in May 1937, revealed both POUM’s treachery to the Republic and the utter bankruptcy of its claims to speak for the Spanish proletariat. With this failed putsch, Trotskyism in Spain had played its last card.

But Trot advice on how Spain ought to run her revolution did not dry up then (and has never dried up since). Writing in November 1937, at a critical time for the future of the Republic, Leon Trotsky wrote an article which was splashed all over the pro-Franco imperialist press, entitled, “It is time to pass to an international offensive against Stalinism”. Here is a flavour of what Trotskyism really has in mind when it gets misty eyed about “remembering Spain”.

“The events of recent months in Spain have demonstrated what crimes the Moscow bureaucracy, now completely degenerate, linked with its international mercenaries, are capable of. In Spain, where the so-called Republican Government serves as a screen for the criminal bands of Stalinism, the GPU has found the most favourable arena for carrying out the directives of the Plenum.”

Harpal Brar, in his work “Trotskyism or Leninism?”, sums up the real significance of Trotsky’s “contribution” to the struggle.

“An international offensive of the dupes of Trotskyism against the Spanish Republic, to coincide with the offensive of Franco – such was the contribution of Trotskyism in the most critical period of the struggle of the Spanish people against local and international fascism.”

Proletarian internationalism versus Trot sectarianism

The SWP leaflet suggests that the 70th anniversary of the start of the war provides “a great opportunity to discuss the continuing relevance of the key political questions posed by Spain in the 30s”. Let this discussion take as its starting point the continued refusal of “the left” in general, and Trotskyism in particular, to offer consistent and unconditional support for the national resistance movement being raised by the Iraqi people against the aggression of “our own” Anglo-American imperialism. What is the relevance to Spain? Listen to the telegram which Joseph Stalin sent to the General Secretary of the Spanish CP, Jose Diaz, on October 15th 1936.

“The toilers of the Soviet Union only fulfil their duty when they give aid to the Spanish revolutionary masses. They are aware that the liberation of Spain from the persecution of Fascist reactionaries is not a private cause of Spaniards, but a universal cause of the whole of advanced and progressive mankind.”

Nor is the liberation of Iraq from the present-day fascist occupation a private cause of Iraqis, but a “universal cause of the whole of advanced and progressive mankind”. Those who have best learned the lessons of the Spanish Civil War are those who today support the united front of the Iraqi resistance movement without caveats or conditions, and urge upon the anti-war movement the unambiguous watchword, Victory to the Iraqi Resistance! Study of the treacherous role played by Trotskyism in the 30s makes it easier to see how those remaining under its baleful influence find this candid slogan so hard to stomach.

Long live the memory of the struggle of the Spanish toilers against fascism!

Long live the memory of the Soviet support for that struggle and of the spirit of proletarian internationalism which inspired the International Brigades!

Long live all those fighting imperialist aggression today in Colombia, Nepal, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Afghanistan!

Victory to the Iraqi resistance!