When dealing with the Spanish Civil War our ruling class has faced an enormous challenge. Unlike many other historical events, it’s very hard to make the proletarian revolutionaries, the leftists, look “bad”. When it comes to the Marxist Leninist states it’s very easy to portray them as totalitarian dystopias. With most attempted communist or left wing uprisings across history it’s easy to just push them under the rug, keep them out of most people’s general knowledge. That means all people will think of when you say communism is scary Russians with nuclear weapons and brutally harsh labour camps. But when it comes to Spain, it’s not that simple. Okay, there is a significant proportion of people, particularly in the anglosphere and particularly the younger generation who were born after Franco’s death, who know little to nothing about the Spanish Civil War. Even in Spain the lack of official recognition of the war is something of a controversy. Despite this the Spanish Civil War still remains a well known and much discussed historical event. Anyone who is the tiniest bit knowledgeable in history or politics would probably be able to tell you when the war was and what it was about at the very least. Historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote on the memory of the civil war that “outside Spain, the civil war lived on, as it still does among the rapidly diminishing number of its non-Spanish contemporaries. It became and has remained something remembered by those who were young at the time like the heart-rending and indestructible memory of a first great and lost love.” Furthermore, in spite of the presence of, particularly in Spain, but also internationally among right wing circles, a lot of talk of a “red terror” carried out by the Republican forces (referring to the various executions of fascists and members of the clergy who assisted Franco’s forces during the civil war), it is the general view that the Republicans were the “goodies” in the conflict. The fact that Franco’s principal allies were Hitler and Mussolini and that until 1975 he presided over an openly fascist dictatorship has probably contributed to this perception. Because of this, the bourgeoisie face a dilemma. It is very difficult to push an anti-communist narrative when discussing an event where the people whom the communists made up a significant part of were, in the eyes of many, the “goodies.” This is why they have utilized a different tactic for inserting redscare propaganda into discourse on the Spanish Civil War. Rather than trying to erase the Civil War from memory or paint the Republicans as the “baddies” and Franco’s forces democracy loving moderate rebels (although as discussed earlier both of those tactics have been present), they try and erase the communist role or make it look as if the communists were just Stalin’s puppets and the Soviets sabotaged the whole effort to push back against fascism. So, in short, the Republicans and their ideals were good, but the communists aren’t to be praised at all, they were just as evil as the fascists. The logical conclusion of this narrative is that we should all follow the lead of David Carr in Ken Loach’s film Tierra y Libertad and rip up our communist party membership cards.
A common portrayal of the Spanish Civil War is one where the fight against fascism in Spain was primarily lead by the anarchist Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI), an organization of anarchist militants mainly from the CNT, an anarchist confederation of trade unions. It’s important not to downplay the role that they played in the struggle against fascism. Often, however, it is presented as just having been the anarchists who struggled against Franco whilst diminishing the roles others played. A large number of films, books, TV series etc about the war will feature anarchists as the principal if not the sole anti-fascist force. Many discussions and interpretations of the war both from the left and even from some liberal perspectives will be centered around the fundamental notion that it was the anarchists that lead the charge against Franco. If Marxists are ever portrayed in a good light then it is never the deranged Stalinists of the PCE but rather the ‘good’ communists of the P.O.U.M. (the ‘good’ communists strategy has for a long time been a way for the Bourgeois media to turn leftists away Marxism Leninism or actually existing socialist states by trying to create a character who valiantly stood up to their former comrades after the revolution was betrayed. This is what has happened with figures such as Leon Trotsky, Alexander Dubcek, much of the pre Mao CPC leadership etc). If the PCE is ever mentioned then it’s only under the assumption that they were just a few irrelevant Soviet puppets who were on par with Franco. This, once again, is not the case at all. To prove this notion wrong we simply need to observe the numbers. In the early days of the war, according to Spanish general and military historian Ramón Salas Larrazábal, the Republicans boasted a force of around 800,000 combatants. If we look for a moment at who these combatants actually were, we’ll discover that the PCE in 1937 had 400,000 (approx) members. In contrast the CNT managed to organize 150,000 fighters and they were largely in Catalonia. It is also often asserted that in Catalonia the leftist movement was entirely dominated by the CNT-FAI, another miss truth. Anarchism had played an imperative role in the labour movement in Catalonia stemming from industrial disputes in the 19th century, but it was not the sole leftist force in the region. The PSUC, the Marxist Leninist sister party of the PCE, had around 50,000 members towards the end of 1936. The social democratic PSOE also boasted a large membership during the entirety of the civil war. The Republican government was full of a variety of people from all sorts of political backgrounds ranging from liberalism to social democracy to anarchism to communism. Although membership rates of parties and organizations does not necessarily reflect the Republican demographics throughout the war, it does clearly demonstrate they were far more diverse than is often portrayed.
The communists were, in many ways, far more ready and organized to fight the brown plague than the anarchist forces were in the buildup to the war. When the Republic was declared, many Spanish landowners and other members of the ruling class were concerned for the security of their positions and privileges. Ever since the mid 19th century Spain had been going through a great liberalization, which primarily helped the interests of the Spanish bourgeoisie as it meant their ascension over the feudal aristocracy and nobility, however it also gave birth to a new political radicalism which not only questioned the monarchy but every aspect of the Spanish social order. It was this radicalism that found a great rebirth during with the declaration of the Spanish Republic in 1931, following years of suppression by the monarchy and under the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera. The Republic saw a series of strikes and labour uprisings. The situation for Spain’s ruling class only worsened in February 1936 when the Popular Front coalition was elected into government. The Popular Front coalition included parties and individuals from the ideologies discussed earlier. It was then that the more militant wave of reaction supported by the bourgeoisie and remnants of the feudal aristocracy who had integrated themselves into the capitalist system began. It was in the face of this reaction that military historian Antony Beevor describes how “the Spanish Communist Party had a better organization and better discipline than other parties, and a firm will… Each left-wing organization began to form its own militia – the communists’ was the most disciplined and effective.” When the coup d’etat against the Republican government lead by monarchist generals broke out on July 17th 1936 it was the communists who were attempting to organize resistance, whilst the moderate Republicans grossly underestimated the severity of the situation. As one carpenter from Seville put it, “[the Republican authorities] were more afraid of the working class than they were of the army. We communists did not share the government’s confidence that the rising would be suffocated in 24 hours.” It was in response to the rising that the then deputy leader of the Communist Party Dolores Ibarruri coined the infamous slogan ‘iNo Pasaran!’ in a speech in Madrid the day after the coup began. This slogan became the motto not only of the struggle against fascism in Spain but across the entire world and is still used regularly to this day by people from a whole range of political ideologies. It is not common knowledge however that it was the “Stalinist traitors” at the PCE that first coined it.
The notion that the PCE simply desired to gain total control of the Republican forces is a gross misrepresentation. They simply knew that the disorganization and lack of discipline was working in Franco’s favour and that there needed to be a far more united and disciplined Republican army. Even the anarchists themselves admitted that this was an issue within their ranks. Solidaridad Obrera, the CNT’s newspaper, stated that “in the course of the last few days we have witnessed certain things that broken our hearts and made us somewhat pessimistic. Our comrades act independently and in a great number of cases ignore the slogans by the [directing] committees [of the CNT]. The revolution will espace from our hands, we shall be massacred from lack of coordination if we do not make up our minds to give the word discipline its real meaning.” This was the motives behind the PCE’s various attempts to unite all anti fascist forces, namely through the creation of a popular army. At no point did they express the desire to assume total control of such an army.
Obviously they would have played a leading role, as due to their Leninist party structure they were perhaps the most organized and efficient of the anti Franco forces, but never were they intent on entirely wiping out their fellow Republicans. In many ways, the anarchists had a far more dogmatic approach than the PCE. Their refusal to have anything to do with a Popular Army was largely due to the fact it would destroy the democratic nature of their militias. This was honourable reasoning however it also indirectly stated that they viewed their approach and their approach to the situation alone as the correct form of praxis. Jose Diaz, the then leader of the PCE, stated in 1940 when commenting on the defeat of the Republicans that “the absence of unity in the labour movement allowed the political parties of the petty bourgeoisie to play a big role which did not correspond to their actual strength and influence. It was this which weakened the war-preparedness of the republican army, prevented the implementation of a determined policy to transform the war economy, and gave comfort to all enemies of the popular front. It was the absence of proletarian unity which prevented the formation of a strong popular government, capable of leading the national-revolutionary war with firmness.”
The notion that the PCE were completely under the control of Moscow is also a false one. The Soviet Union, principally through the Comintern, did have a lot of influence over the PCE, as they did with almost every communist party in the world at the time. This was only to be expected. The CPSU was one of the only communist parties in the world that actually possessed power and therefore the means to help their fellow comrades in other nations. This meant they would supply many foreign communist parties economic and material aid as well provide advice when it came to party leadership and praxis. The PCE was still very much lead by Spanish communists, not Russians, and there is no evidence that it’s leadership unquestionably followed direct orders from Moscow. This notion that the communists were all just part of some Soviet conspiracy is of the same vein as McCarthyite propaganda which would sweep much of the West 20 years later and the neoliberal ‘Russiagate’ conspiracy theories of the present day which seek to depict anyone who espouses what resembles anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist sentiment as an agent of Putin and no different from the far right.
This false portrayal of the struggle in Spain primarily being an anarchist one applies to the International Brigades. A common notion is that they too were primarily anarchists or Trotskyites who would have been equally happy to lay down their lives against Stalin as they were against Franco. This particular perception largely stems from the fact that most people’s image of the International Brigades comes from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia where he describes his fighting alongside the P.O.U.M and illustrustrates the betrayal from the P.C.E, once again utilizing the ‘good communist’ tactic. Let’s look into the facts about the International Brigades. The first thing that jumps out to anyone who actually investigates the real history of the International Brigades is that they were created by the Comintern. Not only that, but recruiting was largely done by communist parties. Not anarchist groups, not Trotskyites, but Marxist Leninist communist parties. Anarchists and other non Marxist Leninist organizations were eventually set up, however it was only really in response to the Marxist Leninists and they never accumulated as larger numbers.
Whilst on the subject of George Orwell, it’s important to consider his work, Homage to Catalonia, when attempting to sift through the lies concerning the civil war. Orwell was one of the first people to push the rhetoric surrounding the PCE being “Stalinist traitors.” Orwell was pushing this line whilst people were still fighting and dying on the frontlines in Spain, even if there was any truth to his claims it was extremely harmful to the Republican cause to be publicly denouncing one of the largest parties within Republican lines. Eric Hobsbawm describes how Homage to Catalonia was “refused by Orwell’s regular publisher, Victor Gollancz, ‘believing, as did many people on the Left, that everything should be sacrificed in order to preserve a common front against the rise of Fascism’…Orwell himself admitted after his return from Spain that, ‘a number of people have said to me with varying degrees of frankness that one must not tell the truth about what is happening in Spain and the part played by the Communist Party because to do so would prejudice public opinion against the Spanish government and so aid Franco.’” This fact alone shows that even if Orwell genuinely believed that the PCE was a great evil needing to be exposed, he was reckless in his condemnation and prioritised turning international opinion against them and the Soviet Union over the fight against Franco. His later work demonstrates that it is unlikely that Orwell even really cared for the Republican cause at all. Marxist political scientist and cultural critic Michael Parenti describes Orwell as a “A prototypic Red-basher who pretended to be on the Left… In the middle of World War II, as the Soviet Union was fighting for its life against the Nazi invaders at Stalingrad, Orwell announced that a “willingness to criticize Russia and Stalin is the test of intellectual honesty. It is the only thing that from a literary intellectual’s point of view is really dangerous.” Safely ensconced within a virulently anticommunist society, Orwell (with Orwellian doublethink) characterized the condemnation of communism as a lonely courageous act of defiance. Today, his ideological progeny are still at it, offering themselves as intrepid left critics of the Left, waging a valiant struggle against imaginary Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist hordes.” It is clear that the man who provided MI6 with a list of suspected communists is not one whose work should be taken seriously by any leftist, other than from a strictly literary point of view. Furthermore, Orwell was far from the only literary figure who fought in Spain. There were countless others like him, one of them being Ernest Hemingway who praised the PCE for their “example, unceasing agitation and unquestioned loyalty.”
The perspective of people such as Orwell who were strongly opposed to the PCE and Marxism Leninism is generally given far more weight than the perspective of the many Marxist Leninists members in the International Brigades who fought alongside the PCE. Michael O’Riordan, an International Brigades veteran and former chair of the Communist Party of Ireland, in response to Ken Loach’s Tierra y Libertad stated that “the anarchists and Trotskyists depicted in the film were doing their own thing in a corner of Spain which was far from the war, and their activities presented no threat to Franco’s rebellion as they served to divert resources from the real issue and undermined the vital task of uniting all anti-fascists. To stage a “revolution” in Barcelona, one week after the Nazi air force bombed Guernica, was a real stab in the back, yet this film glamorizes it. The film tries to blame the Soviet Union for the victory of Franco, despite the fact that the USSR gave more help to the Spanish Government than any other state, and did so in the face of a blockade by Britain and France on the pretext of ‘non-intervention.”
A common assertion made by people such as Orwell who try to utilize the Civil War to demonize the Marxist Leninist cause is that the aid of the Soviet Union was in fact detrimental to the Republican’s struggle. These people somehow manage to twist the narrative in order to portray the one nation that truly stood by the Republic (Mexico also sent aid to the Republic however it was largely symbolic) and aided the Spanish working class in their struggle against the forces of capital as somehow an enemy to the Republican cause. The Soviet Union’s aid to the Republicans was heavily restricted due to the fact that Western Europe, in particular Britain, according to professor in Soviet history John Mccanon, formed “ the Non-Intervention-Committee (NIC) to monitor the war and prevent its spread to the rest of Europe… Germany and Italy violated the agreement with complete impunity, but England and France were able to pressure the Soviet Union into maintaining at least the illusion of compliance. Britain and France did succeed in containing the war to Spanish territory, but only by sacrificing the Republic to the fascists. Whether that sacrifice was justified or not, the NIC tremendously hindered Soviet efforts to aid the Republic, and played a great role in Stalin’s subsequent foreign policy decisions.” The fact that Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy could violate the agreement with “complete impunity” but extreme restrictions were placed on the Soviet Union is telling of the fact that the agreement had absolutely nothing to do with maintaining peace but had everything to do with supporting the nationalists and therefore protecting the interests of the global ruling class.
Despite the restrictions caused by the NIC, the Soviet Union still provided the Republic with invaluable support. McCannon later goes on to say that “Soviet citizens held mass rallies in support of the Republic, and Soviet aid agencies collected 274 million rubles’ worth of food, clothing and medication for the Republic during the course of the war.” The USSR provided the Republican army with 1,000 aircraft, 900 tanks, 1,500 artillery pieces, 300 armoured cars, 15,000 machine-guns, 30,000 automatic firearms, 30,000 mortars, 500,000 riles and 30,000 tons of ammunition. In addition to this an estimated 2,000 Soviet citizens served in the war. This does not sound like a nation who betrayed the Republic and therefore the international working class through their indifference but rather a nation that despite international restrictions attempted to aid the Republic in every way that they could.
Obviously, Soviet aid was not without its flaws. The Soviets had an extreme bias towards the PCE over other leftist groups and helped to elevate their position. In addition to this McCanon writes that the Soviet presence in Spain “contained several different elements and suffered tremendous division. The principal split occurred between the NKVD officers and their rivals in the GRU.” But to believe that the Soviet Union simply wanted to utilize Spanish Republican cause as means to pursue their interests is falling down the rabbit hole of believing conspiracy theories of Soviet world domination generated by the likes of Goebbels and McCarthy.
The PCE and the Soviet Union can in no way be blamed for the Republican defeat. Both the Marxists and anarchists fought bravely in the war and neither were responsible for Franco’s victory, although the anarchists had many shortcomings that were contributing factors to their defeat. Principally, lack of discipline and organization. Professor in Russian History and expert in social movements Pavel Osinsky writes that “the Popular Front government, dominated by civilian politicians and intellectuals, was slow in organizing resistance to Franco’s offensive (Graham 2002). All military effort of the Republic in the early period of the civil war was based on local militias (mostly formed by trade unions) that typically were poorly organized, untrained and undisciplined (Beevor, 2006). In October 1936, the government began organizing militias into a regular, centrally controlled army. The corps of foreign volunteers known as the International Brigades arrived to defend the Republic. However, the process of forming the Popular Army lasted well into mid-1937. The anarchists’ militias resisted centralization and refused to obey orders. Some local detachments were never incorporated into the popular army, thereby remaining under autonomous command. Most importantly, the critical moment was lost.” In short, if the anarchists hadn’t refused to join the Popular Army and had abandoned the notion that uncoordinated local militias could have defeated Franco the Republic would have been much better placed to win the war.
Ultimately however, it was neither the fault of the Marxist Leninists nor the anarchists that the Republic was defeated. The true reason for the defeat was the fact that the Spanish proletariat were fighting class warfare against global capital. The nationalists not only had the backing of wealthy landowners, bankers and businessmen, but also of foreign imperialist powers. Spanish economic historian Pablo Martin-Acena points out that “foreign resources to pay for the war were especially relevant because Spain lacked a military equipment industry. Imports were essential to maintain a war effort. Franco was able to purchase his military equipment with German and Italian “aid” and with loans from private banks in Portugal, Switzerland and the UK. The most important source, because of its magnitude and strategic significance, was the so called aid received from the Axis powers, which included troops, military experts and military supplies on credit. The terms of financial assistance varied by time and country. The mechanism, timing, and control of the funds were always in the hands of the nations providing the aid. Nonetheless, it was always agreed that the advances and credits were to be settled at the end of the conflict.” As aforementioned Britain and France were indifferent about preventing aid to Franco but severely halted the Soviets’ effort to aid the Republic.
Repubican held territory in Spain also suffered due to what was essentially economic sabotage from Franco and his allies as well, as historian Michael Seidman notes “interruptions in supplies of food and raw materials lowered production in many collectives and controlled factories. Second, the traditional markets for Catalan industry—Andalusia and other regions—were under franquista control, and exchange was often impossible. Third, the difficulty of acquiring foreign currencies and the fall of the peseta hindered purchases of needed foreign-made machinery; domestic enemies of the collectives were often reluctant to provide capital and equipment. Fourth, beginning in the spring of 1937 and continuing much more intensively in the first months of 1938, enemy bombardments reduced industrial output. Fifth, the transformation of many Catalan industries to war-related activities distorted productivity. Therefore, industrial production dropped between 33 and 50 percent during the civil war.”
The United States also provided indirect support to Franco, through sales of items such as trucks and oil. In 1937 the US government banned the export of arms to Spain, meaning leftists could not send aid to the Republicans. The bill however permitted the sale of non-military items, mainly benefiting the Nationalists. Companies such as Ford and General Motors sold a total of 12,000 trucks to Franco. Texas Oil Company rerouted oil meant for the Republic to nationalist controlled areas. In the aftermath of the war the then undersecretary at the Spanish Foriegn Ministry José Maria Doussinague stated that “without American petroleum and American trucks, and American credit, we could never have won the Civil War.” American corporations supported Franco with the compliance of the US government for two main reasons, the first being sales of military equipment to the Nationalists generated a profit, and the second being because Franco’s forces were securing the interests of global capital.
The effects of the imbalance in foreign aid could be observed by the end of the war when one of the last Republican territories, Catalonia, was in the process of falling to Franco. To refer once again to Antony Beevor, in the buildup to their campaign into Catalonia the nationalists had obtained “nearly 400 new Spanish pilots, fresh from flying school… At the same time the Condor Legion began to hand over the Messerschmitt 109b fighters to the more experienced Spanish pilots, as their own squadrons were to be equipped with the 109e. Another Spanish squadron was equipped with the Heinkel 112, which had been beaten by the Messerschmitt in the Luftwaffe comparison trials. The Italians tried to rush in their latest fighter, the Fiat G.50 monoplane, to be battle-tested in the closing stages, but it never saw action.
To face this force the seven republican fighter squadrons now had far fewer Moscas that Chatos. This was because the Moscas had to come from the Soviet Union. Only Chatos were manufactured at Sabadell. The 45 aircraft which they produced in the last three months of 1938 did little to make up their losses over the Ebro. Republican ground forces were suffering from an acute shortage of spare parts in almost every field, and machines, weapons and vehicles were being cannibalized ruthlessly so as to ensure a bare operational presence. On the eve of the battle for Catalonia, the Republic’s eastern army group mustered 220,000 men, of whom only 140,000 were in organized mixed brigades. Many were without rifles. Of their 250 field guns, half were unserviceable and few of their 40 tanks were in battle worthy condition.”
This account demonstrates that by the end of the war Republican resources had been exhausted whilst the Nationalists were still more than well equipped. Ultimately this was the cause of the Republican’s defeat.
The Spanish Civil War was far more complicated than the Bourgeois line that the Republicans’ cause was a just one however it found itself betrayed by the PCE and the USSR. The truth is the PCE fought valiantly against Franco and one of the only nations to support them was the USSR. The divisions within Republican forces were not rooted in the PCE’s desire to control all other factions but rather due to the anarchists refusal to help form a Popular Army. The real reason for Franco’s victory was the fact he had the backing of global capital.
Larrazáhal, R. Salas. “Aspectos militares de la Guerra Civil española”
Bolloten 1991, p. 399
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“International Brigades” (Encyclopedia Britannica)
https://www.britannica.com/topic/International-Brigades (sourced 2019)
“George Orwell was a reactionary snitch who made a blacklist of leftists for the British government”
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Reynolds, Nicholas, “Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961 Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy.” Harper-Collins, USA, 2017
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http://irelandscw.com/docs-LFreedom2.htm (sourced 2019)
Mccanon, John, SOVIET INTERVENTION IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, 1936–39: A REEXAMINATION. Russian History, 22(2), 1995, Brill, pp 156-159, 164
Thomas (1961) p. 643.
Osinsky, Pavel, and Jari Eloranta. Why Did the Communists Win or Lose? A Comparative Analysis of the Revolutionary Civil Wars in Russia, Finland, Spain, and China.” Sociological Forum, vol. 29, no. 2, 2014, Wiley, pp 330-332
Seidman, Michael, Workers Against Work Labor in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Fronts Michael Seidman, University of California Press