Felix Morrow

The War in Spain

(February 1938)

Source: The New International, Vol. 4 No. 2, February 1938, pp. 59–61.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford, 2004.
Transcription/XHTML Markup: Ted Crawford and David Walters.
Proofreader: Einde O’Callaghan (August 2015).
Copyleft: Felix Morrow Internet Archive (www.marx.org) 2004. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

Counter-Attack in Spain
by Ramon Sender
Trans. from the Spanish by Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell
288 pp. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Co. $3.00

After the Revolution
by D.A. De Santillan
Trans. from the Spanish by Louis Frank
127 pp. New York. Greenberg. $2.00

Civil War in Spain
by Bertram D. Wolfe
Introd. by Will Herberg
112 pp. New York. Workers Age Publishers. 25¢

The Wat in Spain
by Louis Fischer
55 pp. New York. The Nation. 10¢

The Tragic Week in May
by Augustin Souchy
48 pp. Barcelona. CNT-FAI, 10¢

It is a truisim, is it not, that this is a period of great defeats, of terrible degeneration in the world labor movement, and the character of the period is inevitably reflected in the current literature of the movement. One is reminded, by these books and pamphlets, of the literature produced by the social-patriots and centrists during the World War. The war tore down the plausible logical structures erected by a Bernstein, a Kautsky. Bernstein’s able and persuasive defense of class collaboration, written during the pre-war years, employed a certain intelligence, a feeling for contradictions, for the architecture of thought. Events did not immediately rise up to demonstrate the full meaning of what he advocated. Few could, in the nature of the ease, visualize that the “common sense” he proposed as a methodology meant to deliver tens of millions of workers to the slaughter house, meant the murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the massacre of the flower of the Berlin and Hamburg proletariat, the stewardship of thg social-democracy on behalf of the impotent capitalists and Junkers, the paving of the way for Hitler. But in the full tide of the war, when the bare meaning of class collaboration stared every worker in the face, the social-patriots lost the ability to argue plausibly from premises, to develop a consecutive line of thought, even lost the ability to write well. They spumed forth a literature of hatred for the revolution, of contempt for the international working class; they wrote on the level of a police mentality, their threat of the machine gun and prison underlining the words. Gone were their suavity, their rhetoric, their civilized approach. So, too, in the onslaught of the social patriots and centrists against the Russian Revolution. Who would have believed that Kautsky would descend to the level of his diatribes against the Russian Revolution?

So, too, when the issues were posed in Spain without possibility of ambiguity. For or against the revolution? Read Santillan’s After the Revolution, a compilation of the ideas elaborated by Spanish anarchism during the years immediately preceding the civil war: it is a sane, reasonable, intelligent presentation, employing to great effect a sense for logical coherence. Then turn from this able little book to the hysterical and maundering defense of the treacherous and cowardly role of the anarchist leadership in the The Tragic Week in May. Augustin Souchy is at least as able and as authoritative a spokesman of Spanish anarchism as was Santillan. But Santillan was arguing about ideas which had not received the acid test of civil war; Souchy is writing after libertarian anarchism has gone all the way into the camp of class collaboration. The idealized program enunciated by Santillan has been completely abandoned because unworkable and Souchy has only a few tag ends of old libertarian doctrines with which to cover up the naked fact that the anarchist leaders deserted the Barcelona proletariat and handed with the class enemies of the workers to drive them off the barricades, whence the Stalinists drove the outstanding workers to the firing squad or prison.

As much as any of the war pamphlets of the social-democracy, Souchy’s pamphlet is an involuntary and terrible indictment of anarcho-reformism. The overwhelming majority of the proletariat of the main industrial area of Spain – Catalonia – stood under the banners of the CNT; over a third of the armed forces at the front carried CNT membership cards and another third – in the left wing in the Socialist Party and the UGT – shared the revolutionary spirit of the CNT masses; the workers and peasants had signified in the very first days of the civil war their desire to end capitalism by their seizures of the land and factories. Only naked counter-revolutionary terrorism could hurl back the masses: and the bourgeois-Stalinist bloc openly took the road of counter-revolution. And the Barcelona proletariat rose to halt the counter-revolution. – And those whom they looked to for leadership joined the counter-revolution in tearing down the barricades. On the barricades anarchist workers tore up copies of the anarchist press appealing to them to leave the streets, and shook their fists and guns at the loud speakers from which came the voice of their leaders exhorting them to disperse. The CNT leaders did not hesitate to denounce the left wing anarchists – the Friends of Durruti – as agents provocateurs. Camillo Berneri, spiritual head of Italian anarchism, died under the stiletto points of Stalinist assassins while his erstwhile friends, Montseny, Garcia Oliver, etc., were handing over the Barcelona proletariat to his executioners. The government representatives had promised that if CNT troops did not come from the front, the government would not bring troops into Barcelona; the government broke its promise; and the CNT leaders sent no word to the CNT troops and suppressed the news that government troops were on the way. The government violated its agreement with the CNT for the withdrawal of both sides from the Telephone Building; so the CNT leaders suppressed the news that the government had occupied the building! While one terrible event after another piled up to reveal that the government was utilizing the peace pact with the CNT leaders to carry through its counter-revolutionary repressions, the CNT leaders occupied themselves with issuing manifestos to calm the masses. And when the government had broken all its promises, the CNT leaders came fawningly to ask more promises, none of which was ever kept. It is a terrible story, and the analytical reader will find it all set down in The Tragic Week in May. Anarchism has here written the most terrible indictment of itself.

Hitherto, in the history of the working class, anarchism has never been tested on a grand scale. Now, leading great masses, it has received a definitive test. Anarchism consistently refused to recognize the distinction between a bourgeois and a workers’ state. Even in the days of Lenin and Trotsky anarchism denounced the Soviet Union as an exploiters’ regime. Precisely the failure to distinguish between a bourgeois and a proletarian state led anarchism into the ministry of a bourgeois state. Class collaboration, indeed, lies concealed in the heart of anarchist philosophy. It is hidden during periods of reaction by anarchist hatred of capital oppression. But, in a revolutionary period of dual power, it must come to the surface. For then the capitalist smilingly offers to share in building the new world. And the anarchists, being opposed to “all dictatorships”, including of course the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, require of the capitalist merely that he throw off the avowed capitalist outlook, to which the capitalist agrees, naturally, the better to prepare the crushing of the workers. The Spanish civil war has clearly revealed anarchism as a variety of reformism.

The dominating role of the Stalinists in the counter-revolutionary repressions, and the fact that the persecutions were directed at anarchists as well as the POUM and left socialists, obscured for many the culpability of the anarchist leadership. Now, however, the great responsibility of the CNT leaders for the triumph of the counter-revolutionary forces is fully revealed. The old alibi that the counter-revolution was solely carried on by the Stalinists backed by Soviet threats to withdraw arms, no longer can prevail. The opening of the French border for shipment of raw materials to the Catalan war industries, and the almost complete cessation of Soviet shipment of arms to Spain, have resulted in a definite shift of the relationship of forces. Prieto has pushed the Stalinists to one side, and all camps court the CNT leadership. Nevertheless, the counter-revolution goes on in full blast. The POUM is persecuted as bestially as ever, thousands of outstanding anarchist workers remain in the prisons, the depoliticalization of the army goes on, etc. The complicity of the anarchist leadership in the counter-revolution is evident.

Those who might be inclined to think that, in abandoning their defense of the Moscow trials, the Lovestonites have changed their colors, will be disillusioned by a reading of Wolfe’s Civil War in Spain. In a certain sense, for some time the great dividing line within the working class was the position taken by each group on the Moscow trials. But this fact had to be understood concretely in each case. Most social-democratic groups, for example, did not really fight against the Moscow trials; few of them gave any real support to the Trotsky Defense Committee or to the International Commission of Inquiry; they merely utilized the foulness of the Moscow trials as justification for their continued opposition to the principles of the Russian Revolution, and embarked on no struggles to save the victims of the GPU in Russia, in Spain, or elsewhere. The POUM, itself a victim of the GPU, went on record against the Moscow trials, but simultaneously entered a bourgeois coalition together with the Stalinists. The Lovestonites clung to a Stalinist position on the GPU until the execution of the Red Army generals completed the universal collapse of belief in Stalinist justice. To turn at this point scarcely involved revolutionary courage.

The intellectual dishonesty of Wolfe’s pamphlet is positively repulsive. If these terms seem too sharp, let me inform the reader that Wolfe achieves the feat of writing a pamphlet of 112 pages, identifying himself with the political position of the POUM, in which he does not deal at all with the two key questions: the entry of the POUM into the Catalan bourgeois coalition in December 1936, and the POUM leadership’s abandonment of the Barcelona workers on the May barricades. Think of it! The question of the entry of the POUM into the government is the question of the concrete meaning of the Marxian theory of the state. The POUM denied the fundamental Marxian conception that a coalition is a bourgeois regime. This “detail” is not even referred to by Wolfe. In May 1937, the POUM ordered its forces from the barricades at a time when the masses were still determined to smash the counter-revolution. That decision was based on an explicit perspective of peaceful cohabitation with the counter-revolution until after a victorious conclusion to the civil war – in other words, on a perspective that the counter-revolution could lead the masses to victory. That “detail” also finds no place in Wolfe’s 112 pages.

What does find a place in Wolfe’s brochure – indeed one of the nine chapters is entirely devoted to it – is an attack on Trotskyism. Here, again, Wolfe reveals how utterly corrupt is the political leadership for which he speaks. It is hard to believe, if one does not know the morals of these people, but it is a fact, that nowhere in this chapter does Wolfe refer to the specific criticisms of the POUM made by the Fourth Internationalist movement. Wolfe calls the POUM “the best mass revolutionary party in the entire capitalist world” and having so designated it, he denounces Trotskyism as “a disruptive and destructive force” because it “makes open war upon it [POUM]; calls for a split; substitutes destructive criticism and division for constructive criticism and support”. But the reader of Wolfe’s pamphlet is given no hint of what the Trotskyist criticism of the POUM is! That the POUM abandoned the Marxian theory of the state – that it participated in the coalition government which decreed the disarming of the workers, the turning over of the workers’ militia to an officer caste, dependence on the democratic capitalist powers, which failed to legalize the land seizures, left the banks in the hands of the capitalists, failed to demand of the central government the legalization of collectivization of the factories,etc. – that the POUM, after being thrown out of the government in December 1936, continued on a program of return to a similar government – that from this whole disorientation flowed the POUM’s failure to prepare for the struggle against counter-revolution – that the POUM was merely the tail of the CNT bureaucracy instead of contending with it for the masses – that the POUM leadership capitulated miserably in the May Days – that to this day the POUM (if its Paris representatives speak for it) has failed to orient itself correctly – that the POUM leadership courted and fawned upon its semi-Stalinist right wing which in Valencia brazenly followed a pure People’s Front line, while left-wingers were expelled and driven from the armed forces when the POUM still controlled the militias – these are some of the criticisms which Fourth Internationalists have made of the POUM. Wolfe does not even refer to these, let alone attempt to answer them. Thereby he demonstrates that the Lovestoneites remain Stalinists in method in their relations with other political groups.

Of the Stalinist literature on Spain, it seems to me fruitful here to comment on Fischer’s book and Sender’s. They typify the “unofficial” school of Stalinist propaganda which, since the regime of Peoples Frontism, has in many ways eclipsed the official literature. The official literature in its narrowness, its polemical pogromism, its inability to characterize revolutionary opponents of Stalin except as agents of Hitler and the Mikado, fails to carry conviction to large audiences outside party ranks. The unofficial literature seeks to make up for these deficiencies.

It is significant that Louis Fischer’s brochure was published by The Nation. As the struggle against the Russian Revolution in 1917–1919 was aided and abetted by the liberal weeklies, so now they join the world-wide campaign against the Spanish revolution. Indeed, The Nation and The New Republic are merely repeating, now, their old arguments against the Russian Revolution: the country is backward, it needs democracy, i.e., capitalism; first win the war then make the revolution, etc. Handed out by such notorious Stalinist agents as Fischer and Ralph Bates, these old Menshevik alibis are the sole “information” which the “free-thinking” liberal weeklies permit to get to their readers.

Fischer’s pamphlet is interesting to us for the number of points at which he is constrained to admit facts which the Stalinists officially deny. According to the Stalinist myth, “feudalism” is the cause of the Spanish civil war, and by definition that means that the bourgeoisie can and do play a progressive role. If you don’t accept this myth, the official Stalinist literature denounces you as a fascist agent. Stalinist journalists writing outside the party press, however, are less fortunate; Fischer cannot deny the obvious fact that the industrial bourgeoisie as a whole sided with Franco.

In his attempt to reconcile this fact, which the Stalinists officially do not admit, with the official Stalinist theory of “feudalism” Fischer offers a labored explanation which gives the show away:

”Strangely enough, Spain’s small industrialist class supported the reactionary position taken by the landlords. The industrialists should have welcomed a land reform which would create a whole market for their goods. But they believed that more than economics was involved. They feared that the granting of land to the peasantry would rob the owning classes of political power. The manufacturers therefore who should have encouraged the republic in its attempts to stage a peaceful revolution which would have enriched the country, actually leagued themselves with the backward-looking landlords to prevent all amelioration and reform.”

It does not occur to Fischer to wonder whether landlord and capitalist are not often one and the same, or of the same family, or whether the manufacturer, dependent on the banks, is not fearful for the banks’ mortgages on the land. But even as Fischer poses the problem, the answer is clear. The manufacturer fears diminution of the political power of the owning classes. Why? Because the weakening of the police power permits the workers in his factory to organize and make inroads into his profits. Spanish fascism is the weapon not of “feudalism” but of capitalism. It can be fought successfully by the working class and the peasantry, and by them alone.

Ramon Sender is a novelist who has written some distinguished prose, a conscious craftsman who knows how to get his effects, and now, turned Stalinist, he is able to put his technique at the disposal of reactionary ends. His propaganda for Stalinism and the People’s Front is superior to that of Fischer, Bates, etc., for the simple reason that they are constrained to argue in terms of ideas, while Sender employs the novelist’s right to assert what he believes without recourse to logic or proof, and his sheer ability to weave references to the role of the Communist party into a concrete picture of struggle against fascism suffices to carry the kind of conviction that all good fiction carries. It is pointless to cite the falsities, the errors, the downright lies – all flowing from a deliberate magnifying of the rôle of the Stalinists during the first months, when they were a small party. Any informed or critical reader will immediately perceive that he is reading a story which may or may not be true, but certainly is not accompanied by any serious evidence. More gullible readers, of course, will be carried along by the stream of the story.

And yet, one wonders whether this kind of book will do the work which is its objective, namely, win “broad” non-proletarian elements to the anti-Franco camp. The Fascists are painted as very devils, but no material explanation is provided for their genesis. There are a few references to the landlords’ oppression of the peasantry – no references to the oppression of the factory workers! – but since the Stalinist stand for continued private property on the land, Sender cannot make clear what the land question involved nor what he believes will do away with the land question. And without such a material explanation, many a reader, though tending to sympathy with the anti-fascist cause, must ask himself whether Sender is not merely telling atrocity stories, on the level of those retailed by both sides during the World War. Without an economic program for wiping out the capitalist roots of fascism, the Stalinist writers can only repeat and repeat that the fascists are bad; and the superficial “simplicity” of this approach must undoubtedly wear away for many readers after the first hundred pages. Despite Sender’s craftsmanship, and despite the fact that the war against fascism is a progressive war, the net effect of his book is on no higher level than the war propaganda of the social-patriots during the World War.




Last updated on: 21 August 2015