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Proletarian issue 14 (October 2006)
Spain: dismembering history (web only)
How Trotskyism ‘remembers’ the Spanish Civil War
This year sees the 70th anniversary of the fascist rebellion that 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, out of all the states in the world, carried out its duty under international law and gave unstinting assistance to the Spanish people.

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 that 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. Some 700,000 republican troops still remained in the liberated areas, and international contradictions within the crisis-stricken imperialist camp might yet tip 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?

The Trotskyite ‘contribution’ to the Spanish struggle

In circumstances where the Spanish working class faced the task of attempting to secure proletarian hegemony over the republican movement, the efforts of the communists to draw all anti-fascist forces behind a united Popular Front were crucial to both the survival of the republic and the progress of the revolution.

Yet the misleadingly titled Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity (POUM being its Spanish initials), 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.

For example, mindful that the sporadic excesses that can accompany revolutionary upheaval are certain to be seized upon as a fascist propaganda weapon to drive religious-minded peasants away from the Popular Front, the communists reminded their fellow revolutionaries that such actions as burning down churches and monasteries bring support to the counterrevolution. But Trotskyite demagogy had nothing but contempt for such efforts to guide and discipline the development of the revolution, offensive as all such firm proletarian leadership necessarily appears to the precious individualism of the petty bourgeoisie.

The same demagogy wanted to howl down the communists when they took the lead in setting up 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 alone, who had rallied to confront the fascist forces homing 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 recognised 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 perform 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 had 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 that such proposals amounted to an attempt to “crush the creative revolutionary instinct of the proletariat” (or as the airy SWP phrase has 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.”

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. But before a judgement can be made in any instance about the advisability of this or that tactic, consideration needs to be given to the concrete circumstances.

For example, 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. In the view of Spanish historian R Tamames:

“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.”

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.” Comrades 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.

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 that 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.

The last Trotskyite word on how to encourage ‘socialism from below’ should go to Leon Trotsky himself. Writing in November 1937, at a critical time for the future of the republic, he wrote an article that 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.”

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 that Joseph Stalin sent to Jose Diaz on 15 October 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 1930s 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 people against fascism!

Long live the memory of the International Brigades!

Victory to those fighting imperialist aggression today in Colombia, Nepal, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine!

Victory to the Iraqi resistance!

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