The People’s Front: The New Betrayal by James Burnham

Chapter VII. The People’s Front in Spain




The crisis in Spain is neither new nor unexpected. After its brief and reckless period of glory at the dawn of the modern era, Spain was thrust back into obscurity by the short-sighted policies of its rulers and the advance of northern capitalism. For more than three hundred years it has wallowed in ignorance and squalor, the heavy hand of the Church combining with an odd mélange of semi-feudal lords, the monarchy, great landed proprietors, a small and corrupt native bourgeoisie, and foreign enterprisers, to exploit and oppress the Spanish people. The capitalist revolution was never completed in Spain; its backward economy has been a hopelessly entangled mixture of capitalism combined with the remains of another age. And at this late day, with capitalism in decline on a world scale, and the great powers struggling to the death for the possibilities of exploitation which remain, capitalism can solve not a single one of the great problems of the Spanish economy.

The land of the great estates for the millions of peasants? But the banking and credit system rests upon land mortgages, and to distribute the land would destroy the banking system, that is, destroy Spanish capitalism. The development of Spanish industry? But, on a capitalist basis, this could he accomplished only in an open and expanding world market, whereas the world market is monopolized by the great powers; and even the internal market could not long remain in native hands against the pressure of cheap goods produced by advanced techniques in the imperialist countries. Separation of Church and State, secularization of the nation, and abolition of the political power of the Church? But the Church is itself the greatest capitalist of Spain. Democratization of the army? But the army, the foundation of power, was in the hands of reaction. Freedom for Morocco and autonomy for the Basques and Catalonia? But Spanish capitalism depended upon the exploitation of Morocco and the national minorities.

No, not a single major problem of Spain can be solved by capitalism. The solutions can be discovered only through the workers’ revolution and through socialism--and indeed, not through the Spanish revolution alone. Socialism, by destroying the capitalist order and doing away with the iron bands of capitalist property relations, can give the land to the peasants, expand a socialized industry, liquidate the Church as an oppressive institution, build a workers’ and peasants’ army, and form a free federation of Iberian Socialist Republics.

Such, however, is not the opinion of reformists. After the abdication of the King in 1931, the Socialist Party of Spain entered a coalition government of bourgeois democracy. Two years were enough to expose the hopeless weakness and completely false policy of the coalition; and in 1933, after an electoral victory, a Right coalition took over the reins of the government. The advance of reaction continued unhampered by the parliamentary maneuvers of the reformists. But the alarmed workers took things into their own hands. In 1934, strikes followed one after another in rapid succession. In October, the workers forced their leaders into acquiescence in a revolutionary general strike which developed into an attempted insurrection. The insurrection was drowned in blood by the Foreign Legion, but only after a display of the most magnificent courage and heroism. Far from being disheartened or set back, the workers were in actuality greatly strengthened by the struggle, and the forces of the counter-revolution injured. Once again not class collaboration and reformism but the methods of revolutionary class struggle proved themselves the decisive weapon to serve the interests of the masses.

The workers had suffered a temporary defeat. But their morale was high, their sense of organization strong; they had learned from their bitter experience, and were prepared to enter the path of revolutionary struggle for power and for socialism. Then: enter the People’s Front, putting a new face on the reformist policies that had lead to the disasters of the past. In 1935, the People’s Front program was signed by the workers’ parties and the "left" bourgeois republican parties. It is a document quite on a par with its sister document in France, a little to the right of the New Deal. It bases itself on the defense of democratic capitalism, and rejects--not merely implicitly, but in many cases flatly and explicitly--every even near-socialist demand.

Nevertheless, the People’s Front parties won an electoral majority (though a minority by a small margin in popular vote) and formed the government under Azaña in February, 1936. From the beginning, as in France, the policy of the People’s Front was, has been, and will continue to be the policy of, the "republican" bourgeoisie. To break with that policy in favor of a proletarian policy would mean to break the People’s Front; and that, according to our reformists, is of course "counterrevolution." How amply the nature of the People’s Front was displayed during the months from February to July, 1936! The masses thought they had won a victory through the election of the government, and began to act accordingly, began to take over the land, to strike, to strive for control of factories and railroads. And the government, after drawing back in alarm, then, for the sake of "order" and to avoid "antagonizing" the republican allies or "provoking" the reaction--the government naturally sent the Civil Guard against the peasants who were taking over the land, ordered the strikes to stop, arrested the strikers, broke up workers’ meetings. The government even censored long columns from the papers of the parties--for example, the Communist Party--which supported it! In May, 23 peasants were killed, and 30 wounded by the Civil Guard; and the Minister of the Interior sent a telegram of congratulations--to the Civil Guard.

Meanwhile the counter-revolution, aided by support from abroad in Portugal, Great Britain, Germany and Italy, prepared its forces. It controlled the army, and the government did not dare touch the army. It controlled Morocco, and the government did not dare touch Morocco. Openly, brazenly, it laid out its campaign, and chose its time to strike. On the other side, the proletariat was blocked by the government and by the whole People’s Front policy, from making ready its own class forces: it could not form and arm and train its militia, could not select its factory and peasant committees to coordinate activities; its leaders tried to teach it to put all faith in the government--that is, in the political executive of the bourgeoisie--and in return the government would handle the fascists. But in spite of and against the policy of the People’s Front, the masses went over to direct action, and in these actions were further tested and prepared. The months between February and July witnessed a continuous series of strikes by the workers and seizures of land by the peasants.

On July 17, the counter-revolution struck. The answer of the People’s Front government--the defender against fascism--was: an attempt to come to an understanding with the fascists, and a refusal to arm the workers. But the proletariat took things into its own hands, began its own mobilization, began simply taking the arms from arsenals and barracks. The government was forced by the pressure of the masses to reverse its policy, distribute arms, and call for resistance to the counter-revolution. Once again direct class action, though hampered and obstructed by the treacheries of People’s Frontism, had proved the answer and the only answer.

The People’s Front was thus responsible for the untrained and unprepared condition in which the proletariat and peasantry found itself in July. A revolutionary policy would have put the workers in a position to handle the counter-revolution with a few sharp blows, since Spanish fascism had a comparatively small and uninfluential mass base. As it is, the Civil War drags on endlessly, with hundreds of thousands already killed and many more thousands yet to die. The crime of the People’s Front, however, does not end in July.

In the first weeks after the start of the Civil War, the proletariat and peasantry took, spontaneously, major steps toward setting up their own councils and committees in the factories and shops and villages; established their own police forces and de facto revolutionary courts; and began the formation of their own independent class militia, the foundation of a workers’ Red Army. In this way they were laying the basis for a new state, a revolutionary workers’ state, which, by drawing all power into its own hands and doing away with the existing bourgeois state and its mechanisms, could conduct a revolutionary war against the fascists, and begin the building of socialism. And only through such a state and such a war can the workers succeed in Spain. For the war against the fascists must be a revolutionary war, conducted in terms of a revolutionary perspective. This is true not merely from the point of view of military effectiveness, but, above all, politically. In order to undermine Franco’s African base, and draw the Moorish masses to the side of the Spanish workers, freedom had to be given to Morocco. In order to assure full support from the Basque country and Catalonia, autonomy had to be granted the Basques and Catalonians. In order to solidify a genuine alliance between the peasantry and the workers, and thereby also to make it impossible for Franco to consolidate his lines of communication, the land had to be given outright to the peasants. In order to protect the factories against sabotage, the workers had to have control of them. In order to have an armed force that could he relied on to fight consistently for the revolution and to be protected against any utilization against the workers and peasants, a new workers’ army, divorced in control from the bourgeois state machinery, had to be built.

All of these, however, are revolutionary acts; and, therefore, cannot be properly carried out by a bourgeois government, whether that government is called by the name of "People’s Front" or any other. The task of Marxists in Spain was to promote and lead the process of the extension of workers’ power; to transform the war against Franco into a revolutionary war for workers’ power and for socialism; to act along the perspective of the transfer of state power to the workers’ and peasants’ and soldiers’ committees. The People’s Front leaders of the Spanish working-class parties did just the opposite. After the first weeks of the Civil War, when the People’s Front government had become little more than a helpless shell--the Communist and Socialist parties entered the People’s Front government, and Caballero, "the Spanish Lenin," became the premier of a bourgeois coalition government. In this way, the workers were shunted aside from the revolutionary path, taught to give up confidence in their own class organs, their own committees and councils, to put reliance on the government. The struggle was thrust back into the treacherous "defense of bourgeois democracy" against Fascism; Caballero dropped all his loud talk about "Soviets" and proclaimed to Spain and to the world that he was interested only in protecting the "democratic republic."

Step by step the consequences have been drawn out. The government, as a bourgeois government, has been compelled to check the extension of proletarian class power, and progressively to liquidate the steps that had already been taken. In the name of a "unified command" it has cut off the development toward a genuine workers’ army, and reconstituted the militia into a republican army. In the name of law and order, it has eliminated the workers’ police in the cities, enforcing proletarian justice, and has set up a republican police force, incorporating institutions and individuals already demonstrated to be betrayers of the workers’ struggle. In the name of efficient production, it breaks down genuine workers’ control of the factories. It’s great positive accomplishment to date, proudly hailed and announced by Caballero, is--to have balanced the budget! In this manner, the People’s Front government becomes a second line of defense for capitalism. If the workers succeed, in spite of the government, in defeating the armies of Franco, they will only find themselves bound to the capitalist order as enforced by the People’s Front. Unless they break with Popular Frontism, they will find--and this is the real tragedy of Spain--that they have given their lives and their blood in vain, that their selfless and heroic sacrifice, far from bringing emancipation, will have left them where they began, tied hand and foot in the property relations of capitalist exploitation.

Even more treacherous is the role of the People’s Front in Catalonia, for in Catalonia the process of extending workers’ power had gone much further than in the rest of Spain. Nevertheless, the workers’ parties in Catalonia, instead of carrying through that process to its culmination in the actual transfer of state power, likewise, under the impulsion of the ideas of the People’s Front, entered the Catalonian coalition government. Even the P.O.U.M., though it had abstractly maintained against the other parties that the issue in Spain was "Socialism vs. Capitalism" and not "Democracy vs. Fascism," followed along into the government. And just as in Spain proper, the consequences of this step became at once apparent. The workers were turned aside from the revolutionary path. The government strove to gather into its own hands the organs of power that had slipped away to the proletariat: control over the army, the police, the factories. The autonomous committees of the workers became "no longer necessary"--as even the P.O.U.M. explained--because, of course, the government itself was a "workers’ government." In this way, the bourgeoisie, acting through the coalition government, was preparing the re-consolidation of capitalism in the event that Franco should be defeated on the military front.

With startling suddenness, in November and December, the true character of the Catalonian government became obvious to the world. It was disclosed that representatives of the left republican parties in the government were secretly negotiating in Paris for a "separate peace." A conspiracy was unearthed through which a group from the left republican parties was aiming to assassinate the leaders of the workers’ parties. A campaign against the P.O.U.M. was started by the republican parties in collaboration with the Stalinists (including the Soviet consul-general, Antonov-Ovseënko), on the grounds that the P.O.U.M. was a disruptive and counter-revolutionary force through its insistence on its slogan of socialism vs. capitalism. The campaign culminated in the P.O.U.M.’s being driven out of the government, under the threat of the withdrawal of Soviet material aid if this were not carried through. Impelled thus by necessity rather than by its own clear will, the P.O.U.M. has again turned toward the revolutionary path, and now calls for a break with the policies of the People’s Front, the transformation of the war into a revolutionary war, and the building of workers’ power.

The reply of the People’s Fronters to the new turn of the P.O.U.M. toward a revolutionary course has not been long in coming. Busily re-constituting the Loyalist Army under a unified command on a bourgeois basis, the leaders of the People’s Front declare that the insistence of the P.O.U.M. on a revolutionary war proves it the military as well as political ally of Franco. The Madrid radio station of the P.O.U.M. is raided and shut down; its journals are suppressed; a "Peoples’ Tribunal" consisting of four judges, one from the Stalinists, one Socialist, and two from the "left republican" parties, is appointed to try the P.O.U.M. leaders for treason and "counter-revolution." The campaign for the physical annihilation of the P.O.U.M., under the whip of the Stalinists, continually mounts, and is checked only by the resistance it meets from the rank and file of the militia and the workers’ mass organizations. There should be no surprise. Such also was the reply of the reformists in Germany to Luxemburg and Liebknecht. The policy of class collaboration, of the People’s Front, can no more endure the proletarian revolution than the counter-revolution of fascism.




Posted: 30 April 2005