Felix Morrow

“Anti-Fascist” Capitalists Gave
Whole Northern Front to Franco

Basque Government, Tool of Anglo-French Imperialists, Gave Up Cities Intact,
Then Tried to Blame Their Treachery on Others

(November 1937)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 1 No. 13, 6 November 1937, pp. 6 & 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The “anti-fascist” bourgeoisie has betrayed all of Northern Spain to Franco. The story of this treachery is a terrible lesson in the fatal role of the People’s Front. Bilbao and the industrial towns and iron and coal mines surrounding it constituted a concentrated industrial area second only to Catalonia. For war purposes, it was even superior to the Catalan area, which had to build its metallurgical plants up out of – nothing when the civil war began. Bilbao should have become the center of Spain’s greatest munitions source. From this material base, the northern armies should have driven sharply south toward Burgos and east against Navarre (heart of the fascist movement), to effect a junction with the Aragon front troops. The strategy dictated was of the most elementary kind.

The Basque capitalists, however, were the masters in the Biscayan region. As an English sphere of influence for centuries, it had no enthusiasm for joining Franco and his Italo-German allies. Neither, however, had the Basque bourgeoisie any intention of fighting to the death against Franco. Thanks to the aid of the Socialist and Communist parties, the Basque capitalists had not had their factories seized by the workers after July 19, 1936. But they had no guarantee that a loyalist victory over Franco would not he followed by seizure of their factories also.

Loss of San Sebastian

Its class interests determined the military conduct of the Basque regional government. This was seen as early as mid-September 1936, when the fascists advanced on San Sebastian. Before the attack was well launched, the city was surrendered. Before the Basques retreated, they drove but of the city the CNT militiamen who wanted to destroy factory equipment and other useful materials to prevent them from falling into the hands of the fascists. As a further precaution, fifty armed Basque guards were left behind to protect the buildings. Thus the city was delivered intact to Franco. The bourgeoisie reasoned: destroyed property is gone forever; but if we eventually make peace with Franco, he may give us back our property.

When this happened, I wrote on September 22, 1936, “The northern front has been betrayed!” The anarchist ministers have since revealed that this was the opinion in the Caballero cabinet. What delayed the completion of outright betrayal for six months, however, was the stupidity of Franco’s officers who took over San Sebastian. The fifty guards left behind to protect the buildings were shot. Bourgeois proprietors who had remained behind to make their peace with Franco were imprisoned, some of them executed. The inhabitants were terrorised. The Basque front stiffened – for a little while.

Seek Armistice

By December, however, the Basque government was again feeling its way to an armistice. While Madrid still rejected all negotiations for exchange of prisoners, the Basque negotiated such an agreement and, in reporting this, Augur, the “unofficial” voice of the British Foreign office said; “The British have been working to promote local armistices between the rebels and Loyalists. The offer of the Basque government at Bilbao to conclude a Christmas truce was directly due to discreet intervention by British agents who hope this may lead to a complete suspension of hostilities” (New York Times, December 17, 1936). Nothing of this of course appeared in the loyalist press, where the censorship was in full blast.

Suppress Workers

The Basque bourgeoisie simply had no basic stake in fighting fascism. If the struggle involved serious sacrifice, they were ready to withdraw. One of the factors which gave them pause, however, was the growing CNT movement in this region. Whereupon the Stalinists and right wing socialists, sitting in the regional government with the bourgeoisie (the CNT had been dropped when the Defense Junta of September, 1936, gave way to the government), facilitated the betrayal. On the flimsiest pretext imaginable – the Basque government had invited the CNT militiamen to join in celebrating Easter Week and the CNT Regional Committee and press had indignantly denounced the religious ceremonial – the whole regional committee and the editorial staff of CNT del Norte were imprisoned on March 26, and the printing presses turned over to the Stalinists!

Role of Central Government

The loyalist government was of course aware of the danger, aware of Bilbao’s failure to transform her plants for munitions purposes, aware of the criminal inactivity of the Basque front which enabled Mola to shift his troops southward to join the encirclement of Madrid. Why did the government do nothing about it? Because there was only one way to save the northern front: by confronting the Basque bourgeoisie with a powerful united front of the proletarian forces in the region, ready to take power if the bourgeoisie faltered, and to prepare for this by ideological criticism of the Basque capitalists. That way, however, was alien to this government of reformists, Stalinists and bourgeoisie which, above all, feared to arouse the masses to political initiative.

As a government pledged to class collaboration even more completely than Caballero’s, the Negrin government did nothing to counter the more and more brazen sabotage of the Basque bourgeoisie. This front was almost inactive, throughout the period from November 1936 to May 1937, when the fascists moved to take it over altogether. The March coup against the CNT was followed by systematic repression of the workers, with public meetings prohibited. Thus the one force which might have prevented betrayal was crushed by the bourgeois-Stalinist bloc.

Bilbao Betrayed

The loss of Bilbao was an open act of treachery. “Not even the Insurgent heavy guns,” wrote the New York Times correspondent, “could have destroyed some of these underground fortifications, with their three armored concrete tiers and block houses spaced about three miles apart all the way to the Biscay coast. The Insurgents themselves says that the ‘iron ring’ of fortifications would never have been taken had not the Basques been outmaneuvered.”. “Outmaneuvered,” however was a fascist euphemism for betrayal. This fact was admitted by the Basque governmental delegation in Paris, which put the blame on an engineer in charge of building fortifications, who had fled to Franco with the plans. But the engineer had fled months before. Why was not the intervening period utilized to redesign the fortifications ? But the alibi was a subterfuge. For, as any tyro in military science knew, mere possession of plans could not have solved the fascist problem of breaking through the fortifications. They were let through the iron ring.

It is an elementary axiom of military science that no large city can be captured until its massive buildings have been razed to the point where they offer no further protection to beleaguered troops. But the bourgeoisie did not wait for the shelling of Bilbao at all! On June 19, they surrendered Bilbao as they had San Sebastian. The London Times (June 21) reported that Assault and Civil Guards and regular Basque troops had previously driven out the Asturian militiamen and prevented a last-ditch defense.

Santander Falls

CNT and UGT press attempts to sound the alarm after Bilbao’s fall were cut to ribbons by the censorship. The Basque general staff was permitted to remain in command of the retreating troops. When, within a few weeks, the fascists began a second offensive, the industrial town of Reinosa, key to Santander’s defense collapsed, and once again the Basque made no attempt to defend the city itself.

Basque Alibi

The Basque officials fled on a British warship. At Bayonne, they issued an amazing statement, part of which we quote:

“In a terrain composed of great mountains and deep gorges, Franco’s troops advanced with incomprehensible velocity ... This was an impossible or very difficult achievement and proves that the accidents of terrain were not utilized for resisting Franco’s army ... The Santander army’s organization was undone from the moment the offensive began. Neither communications nor the sanitary services functioned ... Neither the general staff nor that of the Army of the North controlled the offensive at any moment ... Reinosa was surrendered to the enemy without time for evacuating the population. The artillery factory fell into the hands of the rebels with its shops for naval construction almost intact, including 38 batteries of artillery.

“... the Basque army realized that it had been the victim of treachery ... cannot explain in any reasonable way the fact that a terrain of eighty kilometres was lost in eight days ...”

Somebody committed treachery, but not we, was the sum and substance of this amazing document. But who, knowing anything of the CNT and Asturian militiamen, would imagine that they had not stood at their posts ready to fight to the “death? On the other hand, the Basques could not name a battle in which they stood up to the last. The Basque document’s alibi was threadbare. The bourgeoisie had been party to the treachery.

Others Implicated

That others were also treacherous, we are ready to concede to the Basque capitalists. As in Bilbao, so in Santander, yesterday’s “loyal” Assault and Civil Guards were patrolling the streets, disarming Asturian militiamen, etc., before the fascists had even arrived. These police were directly under the Stalinist, Moron, director-general of police of Spain, who had dissolved the councils of anti-fascist guards, organized for cleansing the police of dubious elements. The treachery also involves that Supreme War Council, the “real functioning” of which had been one of the Stalinist demands which, they said, could only be satisfied by Negrin’s cabinet. More, what of the two Stalinist ministers in the Basque government, who had fled from Bilbao even before their colleagues? It is a fact that their having existed cannot be discovered from the Stalinist press!

Stalinist Alibi

The Stalinists attempted to unload all blame onto the Basque bourgeoisie, in a statement of the CP Political Bureau in mid-September. But La Pasionaria’s speech in the Cortes, October 1, – the Basque deputies were there, most of them coming from Paris and immediately afterward returning there – said not a word about the treachery of the Basque bourgeoisie. Instead, she said:

“We know that the salaries which the workers earn are not sufficient to take care of their homes ... In this sense, we have the example of what can occur, when the workers are not satisfied; we have the example of (Basque) Euzkadi, where the workers continued with the same salaries because the same capitalist establishments continued.”

Blames Workers

No other conclusion could be drawn from these words, except that the dissatisfied workers had lost the military struggle. The only blame of the bourgeoisie was that they hadn’t given the workers better salaries! If the pseudo-radical reference to “the same capitalist establishments” were anything but demagogy, why did not Pasionaria go on to demand that the other capitalist establishments in remaining Spain be given to the workers? On the contrary, the cabinet is systematically taking factories and land away from the workers and giving them back to the old proprietors.

Asturians Fight On

The Asturian and Santander militiaman – largely CNT and left socialist – bitterly contested every foot of ground. The terrain here was even more favorable to the defense than the hilly Santander region. The Asturian dynamiters were still unshakably holding their grip on Oviedo’s suburbs, immobilizing the garrison there since July, 1936. All told, nearly 140,000 armed troops were in the loyalist north.

The striking contrast between the fighting methods of the Asturians and of the Basque nationalists was indicated by the fact that not a village was given up before it was destroyed. “The retreating Asturians seem determined to leave only smoking ruins and desolation behind them when they are finally forced to abandon a town or a village,” wrote the New York Times (October 19).

But Are Betrayed

Then something happened. Not in the Oviedo region, where the militia held firm. Not among the forces which, after retreating from Cangas de Onis, had established new lines. But in the coastal region east of Gijon, where the Basque troops were, and which was under the direct command of the general staff stationed in Gijon. The fascist Navarrese advanced twenty-eight miles here through towns and villages in three days. Even so, the chief Insurgent forces were fifteen miles east of Gijon when the city surrendered, on October 21!

In the preceding days, the government officials and army officers had fled. But the masses of course could not flee: they were left to the mercy of Franco. No measures had been taken in the months intervening to purge the officialdom, or to create worker-patrols to cleanse the city of the hidden fascists, nor were the Civil and Assault Guards sifted. As a result, once more, the Civil and Assault Guards joined with civilian fascists to take control and the fascist troops merely marched in. Again, a city had fallen intact, with all its factories ready to work for Franco.

The Government of Defeat

The “government of victory”, Pasionaria had christened the Negrin cabinet on its birth. Six months have demonstrated the grotesque ludicrousness of that christening. The one conceivable justification for its repressions against the workers and peasants might have been its military victories. But precisely from its reactionary politics flowed its disastrous military polices. Whether Spain remains under this terrible yoke and goes down to the depths, or yet frees herself from these organizers of defeat and goes forward to victory, whatever happens, history has already stamped the government of Negrin-Stalin with its true title: the government of defeat.

Last updated on 19 November 2014