In 1931 the Spanish King Alfonso XIII, having supported the discredited dictator Primo de Rivera, went into exile. The Second Republic was proclaimed. Articles 26 and 27 of its new constitution placed stringent controls on church property. Members of religious orders were banned from the ranks of teachers. It also allowed divorce, gave women the vote and stripped the nobility of its special legal status. It established a legal procedure for the nationalisation of public services, banks and railways.
In 1934 Catalonia attempted to establish its autonomy with the Spanish Federation. This moved was suppressed and Catalonia only became autonomous in 1936. Its government was called the Generalitat.
That year the parties of the Left – socialists, communists, republicans, Catalan nationalists – united into a Popular Front. This followed the line of the Communist International which after the coming to power of Hitler had abandoned its line of class against class and adopted a Popular Front policy. It feared a successful workers’ revolution would upset the Western democracies who it saw as allies against Hitler.
The Popular Front won the elections early in 1936. It had 263 seats against 156 for the Right. There followed violence between Left and Right. On July 17, 1936 General Francisco Franco staged a coup. The response of the working class was to seize power and begin the collectivisation of the means of production. Workers’ militias, often untrained and poorly armed, to fight the fascists were hastily formed.
The process of collectivisation and the new human relationships it created has been given a first-hand account in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. About 75% of the economy was under workers’ self management.
In the countryside, the landlords having fled, the land was redistributed or collectivised. The passionate debates on this are depicted in the Ken Loach film Land and Freedom.
The far left was represented by the National Confederation of Labour an anarcho-syndicalist union closely allied with the Iberian Anarchist Federation, and the POUM ( Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity ) a fusion of two splits from the Communist Party and numerically larger than it, around 40,000 members in 1937. Many POUM members were also in the CNT.
Both the POUM and the CNT joined the Catalan Government.
The POUM was accused in the Stalinist press of collaborating with the fascists.
In May 1937 the Stalinists attempted to seize the Barcelona telephone exchange. Fighting broke out. The attempt of the CNT leadership amounted to capitulation. The POUM was supressed. Its members vanished behind bars and its leader Andres Nin murdered.
The collectives in the countryside were dissolved as were the workers’ militias. A conventional army was created as was a secret police force, the SIM. Soviet officials such as the Soviet consul Antonov-Ovseyenko played a leading role in supressing the revolutionary Left. He later became a victim of the purges which wiped many Old Bolsheviks.
With many workers now disillusioned, the Republic was severely weakened. The fascists aided by German and Italian “volunteers” and armed with modern weapons including bomber planes, by 1939 were victorious.
Stalinism, which had abandoned world revolution in favour of socialism in one country, the USSR, was as responsible for the defeat of the Spanish Revolution as the armed might of fascism.