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Spain and the Communists


Does Spain Betrayed, a collection of documents from the Soviet archives, as Robert Conquest claims in a comment on the jacket, “finally and totally” destroy long-held myths about the extent and influence of the Soviet role in the Spanish Civil War? Well aware that two generations of scholars have been engaged in dissecting Soviet influence in Spain, the editors of this book make a more modest claim:

The most important aspect of the archival evidence is…not startling new revelations, but rather the more complete understanding of Soviet and Comintern [the Soviet body responsible for relations with the Communist parties outside Russia] participation in the war and the politics of the Spanish Republic that the documents provide.

It is the story from the inside as revealed by the reports of Soviet agents in Spain anxious to prove their loyalty to the “village” (Moscow) at the time of the great purges of the old Bolsheviks and the army high command. To save their skins in this paranoid atmosphere, where Stalin saw everything as a possible conspiracy, they blamed all reverses on the inadequacies of rival agents. General Emilio Kléber, the commander of the first International Brigade to parade in the streets of the besieged Madrid, defends himself by accusing André Marty, the French Comintern organizer of the Brigades, of incompetence. Others are accused of neglecting the interests of the “firm,” i.e., acting independently of the “village.” Some are dismissed as drunken incompetents and womanizers, living like lords in well-appointed villas. Vittorio Codovilla, the Argentinian Comintern agent who controlled the Spanish Communist Party, is accused of treating the CPE “as his own property…. This kind of behavior is intolerable.”

The editors of Spain Betrayed correctly conclude that “in the end, the documents suggest that the Soviets achieved so much in Spain not because of their overwhelming efficiency, but rather because they were more competent and united than their hapless opponents,” i.e., their opponents in the Republican governments. This Republican disunity, which was the obsessive concern of the reports of the Soviet agents in Spain, did more than benefit the political ambitions of the Communists. It was a fatal weakness of the Republic at war. To examine these problems and the Soviets’ response to them, it is necessary to explain the situation at the time of the outbreak of the war on July 18, 1936, and how it developed until late 1938, when the flood of documents exchanged between Communists in Spain and in Moscow becomes a trickle.

In February 1936 the victory of the Popular Front, an alliance of Socialists, Communists, and Republicans, in the elections of that year denied the conservative right any prospect of gaining power by legal, constitutional means. The leaders of the right turned to the army, they said, to save society from the left. But the military conspirators who rose against the Republic on July 18, 1936, failed to achieve their hope for a short, sharp seizure of power following a classic pronunciamento. Some of the attacks by right-wing army units in Madrid, Barcelona, and other sites were repulsed. But the Republic was faced with the prospect of a long and hard-fought war that was to last until April 1939. To win that war demanded the creation of a strong government and an efficient army.

This was beyond the capacities of the elected government headed by Professor José Giral, which was composed exclusively of the largely middle-class Republican parties. Francoist propaganda presented the Nationalist military rising against the legal government of Spain, which had taken office after the electoral victory of February 1936, as a patriotic necessity in order to forestall a Communist takeover. Not only were the Communists in no position to stage a potential coup, but Giral’s government included neither Communists nor any representatives of other working-class parties—the Socialists of the PSOE party and their trade union, the UGT, and the anarchist union, the CNT. Nevertheless, proletarian militants had played an important part in the defeat of the military rebellion of July 1936, both in the streets of Madrid and, above all, in Barcelona, where the CNT’s assault on the army’s Atarazanas barracks was hailed by a CNT militant as an event which would resound in history like the fall of the Bastille.

Moreover, the Republican state had ceased to exist; power was in the hands of local ad hoc committees of the parties of the Popular Front. Since the Republican army dissolved itself, the resistance of the working classes supplied the main military force available. That force was made up of militias, loyal not to the Republican state but rather to the political parties that had organized them; they elected their own officers. In the advance on Madrid the Nationalist army of Franco was from the outset commanded by professional officers with troops hardened in the Moroccan wars. In the words of a Nationalist journalist, it cut through the militia units like a knife through butter.

In September 1936, Giral was replaced as prime minister by the labor boss Francisco Largo Caballero, who had built up and bureaucratized the Socialist trade union, the UGT. His cabinet included the Socialists of the PSOE, the Communists of the Communist Party of Spain, and the Republicans. In November the leaders of the anarchist CNT joined the government. After a series of military disasters and the collapse of the economy, Caballero’s task was to restore the power of the central government—which had, in the early confused days of the war, surrendered its power to local committees—in order to create an efficient war industry and, by subjecting the militias to military discipline under the general staff, begin the creation of what was to become the Popular Army. By November 1936 this nascent Popular Army was capable of denying Franco the conquest of Madrid, which, if successful, would have ended the war in a matter of months.

The weakness of the new government was that it was not the government of national unity that the war effort demanded. It was an old-fashioned coalition government cobbled together of factions ranging from bourgeois Republicans to the revolutionary anarchists of the CNT. All had different aims and diverse strategies for winning the war. For the anarchists, it was to be won by the enthusiasm of the working-class masses embodied in the militia; for the Communists, by the iron discipline of their Fifth Regiment, the militia unit they themselves organized.

The CNT leaders had joined Caballero’s government with reluctance, and as Federica Montseny, the minister of health, told me, “with tears.” They had abandoned the central doctrine of anarchism by which the capitalist bourgeois state was the eternal enemy of the working class. Any collaboration was seen as treason by the militants of the movement. But the collapse of the administrative apparatus of the bourgeois state in July allowed the CNT to mount in Catalonia what has been called the most profound social revolution of the twentieth century. At their last conference in Saragossa before the war, they had proclaimed their vision of a Spain of self-governing libertarian communes. In the summer of 1936 factories were collectivized and governed by shop-floor workers’ committees. The agrarian collectives in Aragon became an independent CNT fief in which capitalist money was abolished.

For the Communists, collectivization in the Soviet Union had meant state control, and for them the CNT ideal of a workers’ takeover, which the CNT members saw as the reward for their heroism at the barricades, was nothing more than a collection of utopian fantasies. The CNT, in the Communist view, made impossible the creation of an efficient war industry. It was, the Communists thought, absurd that skilled engineers should be paid the same wages as unskilled hands. Moreover, in the early days, CNT “uncontrollables” had summarily executed supposed Fascists, in nightly paseos, or roundups. They had assassinated priests en masse as “smelling of candle wax” and burned down their churches. They had killed nuns. If the anarchists continued their “pillaging and burning” they would remain a “black spot” on the anti-Fascist movement, Codovilla and José Díaz, the secretary general of the PCE, wrote in a joint dispatch to Moscow. “If they persist in acts of provocation, the revolutionary law will be applied.” Vladimir Gorev, the Soviet military adviser, wrote to his boss, Marshal Voroshilov, “A struggle against the anarchists is absolutely inevitable after victory over the Whites.”

The phrase “after victory” is important. During the war, Gorev evidently thought the anarchists must be handled more gently since their historic tradition gave them “almost absolute” power in Catalonia. The Communists distinguished between good and bad anarchists. The “good anarchists” were the leaders who had joined Caballero’s government. In July 1936, the anarchist leader Juan García Oliver was seen by the Communists as a dangerous “fanatic.” By September, as minister of justice in the Catalan government, he had become a responsible statesman, stopping the CNT press from reporting unfavorably on events in the Soviet Union. This healthier element, Gorev and others wrote, must be separated from the lumpen proletariat; they were to understand “the necessity of getting rid of their dark criminal element.”

The Soviet agents never cease to complain in their reports about the deplorable military performance of the anarchists and of their reluctance to accept integration into the more disciplined Popular Army of their militia—seen by the anarchists as the guardians of their revolution—and of the ineptitude of their economic experiments. But the attitudes of the Soviets are more flexible than has been imagined. Anarchists, they said, should be domesticated rather than provoke the risk of their suppression by force. “With these people we must secure a united front, even if we have to make serious concessions,” wrote André Marty in October 1936.

One of the accusations made against the Soviet consul in Barcelona, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, later recalled to Moscow and shot, was that he had spoken harshly to the anarchists. The obsession of the Soviet agents with the anarchists lasted until the divisions among the anarchist groups rendered them impotent. Nor did the Communists, both Soviet and Spanish, ever relent in their belief that the “revolution” must be postponed until victory had been won. To win it the revolutionary conquests of July must not merely be put in cold storage, they must be dismantled. This counterrevolution was the work of Jacobin committeemen with no time for the enragés of the streets. Professor Richard Pipes regards the abolition of private property as the hallmark of communism. Yet by 1937 the Spanish Communists had become, under Soviet advice, the resolute defenders of the private property of peasants and small businessmen.1

The Socialists were the most powerful element in Caballero’s government, but, like the CNT, they had been divided over the issue of collaboration with the bourgeois Republicans. After the formation of the Popular Front government in February 1936, Caballero had rejected cooperation with the Republicans in government in favor of a Socialist takeover of the government by legal means. In what has been called his Bolshevik phase—he was alleged to have read Marx in prison—Caballero used the rhetoric of a proletarian revolution without any intention of staging a Spanish edition of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. A former plasterer, he derived his power from the UGT. His Socialist rival in the Popular Front government, Indalecio Prieto, was a journalist who had close contacts with sympathetic Republicans. His power base was in his party, the PSOE. He regarded Caballero’s “Bolshevikization” as suicidal. Caballero, for his part, blocked Prieto’s appointment as prime minister in a Republican-Socialist government. These ideological and tactical differences turned into personal hatred. By July 1936, Caballero and Prieto were not on speaking terms; the newspapers they controlled engaged in a slanging match. It was their rivalry in the government of September 1936 that allowed the Communists to destroy Caballero.

  1. 1

    Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (Modern Library, 2001), p. 148.

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