Felix Morrow

Popular Front Surrenders Santander

(September 1937)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 1 No. 4, 4 September 1937, pp. 1 & 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Santander, last Biscay port of the Loyalists, was surrendered on August 26 by the Basque general staff without the slightest attempt; to defend it. Santander fell into the hands of Franco intact, its port and factories ready for use by the Fascists. The same thing had happened in Reinosa, manufacturing town and key to Santander’s defenses, a few days earlier. Instead of war to the death against fascism, the Negrin government’s appointees miserably capitulated. Not even the military supplies were destroyed. Even before the fascist troops arrived in Santander, yesterday’s “loyal republican police”, the National Republican Guards, as well as armed fascist civilians, were patrolling the streets and disarming Asturian militiamen.

A revealing light is thrown on the conduct of the Basque Government by a Times dispatch of August 25:

“At the time of the fall of Bilbao the Basques freed all their hostages except seventeen. Now these are considered to be in the gravest peril as the Basques admit that it is no longer possible to protect them from extremist elements (the Asturian miners) in Santander. “When the British Embassy agreed to take off the hostages it would also evacuate the Basques who have been guarding them as well as any remaining members of the Basque Government ...

“It is hoped that the whole maneuver will be carried out before the more violent elements in Santander are aware of what is happening.”

Play Fascist Game

The next day the British battleship Keith, with Basque and Fascist representatives aboard, “rescued” the Basque officials and the seventeen fascists! Instead of going to the Asturian port, Gijon, to which the real fighters against fascism were sailing for a last stand against Franco, the Basque President, Aguirre, and his cohorts, preferred to leave Spain, paying for the voyage by releasing seventeen important Fascist prisoners! Such is the quality of the “anti-fascism” of the liberal bourgeoisie.

That the Basque bourgeoisie would not fight to the death against Franco was apparent as early as September, 1936, when they abandoned the factories of San Sebastian intact to the enemy, The same thing has happened in the case of every city in the Biscay provinces. Rather than conduct an intransigent struggle involving demolition of bourgeois factories and buildings, the bourgeoisie preferred to abandon the cities, one by one. Property was more sacred to them than the struggle against fascism. If the property were destroyed, it would be irretrievably lost. But if they surrendered it intact and Franco was victorious, Franco, believing in private property, would certainly want to conciliate the property-owners when the war was over, even if they had been on the wrong side for a time ... Apart from this certain prospect, there may even have been an understanding on this point with Franco; for the absolute uniformity of the Basque policy of surrendering all industrial cities intact has no counterpart in any modern war, not to speak of civil wars!

Double Treachery

The “iron ring” defending Bilbao had been built months previously under the direction of an engineer who had shortly escaped to fascist territory. The fascists, then, had the plans of the fortifications and could skirt and flank them, as they actually did. But the treachery of the engineer was only made public after the fascists had broken through the fortifications; it was then adduced as the alibi of the Basque government. But months had intervened since his flight. Why was nothing done to construct a new system of fortifications in the interim?

Furthermore, no offensive was begun on the central front to force Franco to divert troops from the Basque front. Nor were airplanes sent from Madrid, then quiet, to defend Bilbao. Why? Had the Negrin government information which made it certain that Bilbao would surrender? Was it, perhaps, a party to the decision? Certainly no other hypothesis explains the passivity of the Negrin Government during the march on Bilbao during June. The Stalinist alibi that the Negrin cabinet (established May 17) had not had time to organize a campaign on the Madrid or Aragon fronts is absurd on the face of it; no military man worth his salt would deny that three weeks – not to speak of preparations by the Caballero cabinet in which the Prieto-bourgeois-Stalinist forces had the commanding voice – was enough to organize a large-scale offensive.

Our suspicions are completely justified by the manner in which Bilbao surrendered. No attempt was made to defend the city. Not a single factory or wharf was damaged by fascist shells before its fall. The Asturian miners managed to dynamite some of the bridges; but when they sought to destroy supplies which were being left behind, and factories manufacturing war-materials, they were driven out of the city at gun-point, or, worse, disarmed by National Republican Guards and Basque soldiers of the regular army and held so that they might fall into the hands of the fascists! The Guards “maintained order” until Franco’s forces arrived; patrolled the streets while the fascist troops marched in; then most of them donned Carlist red berets and went to work for Franco!

These unquestioned facts do not come from any private source. Most of them were reported by the regular news-correspondents, including the London Times’ G. L. Steer, a Loyalist sympathizer. Neither here nor abroad did the Stalinists deny these facts. They “ignored” them as did the Negrin government. With the result that the Basque Government has consummated its treachery by similarly surrendering Santander and fleeing the country. This outcome was inevitable: for the “liberal” bourgeoisie has no basic stake in fighting fascism. As agents and partners of British and French

capital in Spain, the Basque bourgeoisie had no enthusiasm for joining Franco, with his German and Italian commitments. But more than they hated Franco, they hated the masses of the UGT and CNT. They supported Prieto and the Stalinists in reconstructing the bourgeois state, in depriving the workers of the conquests they had won in crushing the fascists in the chief cities. But despite all repressions, the bourgeoisie had no guarantees that a victory over Franco would not galvanize the working class into taking complete power. Against this eventuality only Franco could guarantee them.

Nothing Learned

Neither the treachery of the Basque bourgeoisie, nor the continued blockade of Franco and English imperialism, serve to convince the bourgeois-Prieto-Stalinist bloc that their course is false. Nothing can convince the Peoples Front coalition of this. They are determined to win, if at all – and not a few of the government leaders prefer a compromise with Franco to the possible dangers of proletarian power after victory – on the basis of so thoroughly consolidating a bourgeois regime that Anglo-French imperialism, reassured, will come to their aid.

The most striking confirmation of this is seen on the Aragon front. The Catalan militias, predominantly CNT, and with ten thousand POUM militiamen among them, made the most important military gains in the first months of war. They re-conquered almost all Aragon and immobilized Zaragoza, seat of one of the biggest garrisons and heavily fortified, which was to have been for the fascists what Burgos was further west. Once the fascists began receiving arms and planes from abroad, however, the ill-armed CNT-POUM militias could not take Zaragoza without planes and artillery. But they received none of these materials which were arriving from Russia, Mexico and other sources. While the Civil Guards, Assault Guards and Carabineros (who were not sent to the front, but were used to “preserve order” by cowing the workers) were armed with brand-new Russian rifles, automatic pistols, machine guns and artillery, and fleets of warplanes stood idle on the Madrid front between offensives, the Aragon militias had worn-out Mauser rifles, one machine-gun to fifty men and one revolver to about thirty men. “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 of the fascists. Hence the feeble war-policy of the past six months, and hence the compromise with which the war will almost certainly end,” writes George Orwell, soldier with the I.L.P. contingent on the Aragon front.

War Sabotaged

When Santander fell and the government sought to make a showing by initiating the present Aragon offensive, the main forces, those of the CNT, were not entrusted with the artillery; instead, some “International Brigades” – Stalinist-led – were given the artillery and machine-guns while the CNT troops manned the trenches with their inadequate weapons. As a result, the offensive never developed any power.

While the war is thus sabotaged, the government continues unabated the reactionary offensive against the proletariat. Another POUM leader has been killed, this time by “legal” execution: Mena, Political Commissioner of the POUM militias at Lerida, charged with “inciting to revolt.” The French press, with the exception of L’Humanité report this.

Even more significant is the arrest of Joaquin Ascaso, president of the Council of Aragon. Ascaso formed the Council in September, 1936 and shortly thereafter it was enlarged to include representatives of the Popular Front parties, but it remained predominantly CNT in composition. It organized on a collective basis the economic life of re-conquered Aragon and made possible provisioning of the Aragon front by the neighboring villages.

With the establishment of the Negrin government on May 17 a rabid campaign was organized against the Aragon Council. Stalinist spokesmen, at the PSUC Congress in Barcelona at the end of July, openly called for a repetition of the Barcelona repression in Aragon. All attempts to organize a strong Stalinist movement within Aragon failed, for the peasants are in favor of the collectives. Now the government has struck from outside. Ascaso is held on the preposterous charge of “embezzling jewels.” Although only thirty years old, Ascaso is one of the most popular CNT leaders.

Thus the war against fascism is sabotaged by the government, while the latter incessantly wars against the revolutionary workers.

Last updated on 19 November 2014