The Spanish revolution was the only revolution to take place in Europe during the existence of the Communist International, with the transient exception of the 1919 Hungarian soviet republic: but it took the leaders of the ‘world party’ unawares. In Manuilsky’s report to the Comintern Executive in February 1930, he dwelt on ‘the enormous prospects now opening up for transforming today’s revolutionary upsurge in the advanced capitalist and colonial countries into a revolutionary situation’. The ‘revolutionary upsurge’ in the ‘advanced capitalist countries’ at that moment existed only in the mind of Stalin’s representative in the Comintern, but shortly before the Executive meeting the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera had fallen, and some of those present raised the question of its significance. Manuilsky replied: ‘Spain is not where the fate of the world proletarian revolution will be decided . . . A single strike is of more importance to the international working class than this Spanish-style “revolution”, which has taken place without the communist party and the proletariat taking their historic, leading role.’ footnote1 The revolution nonetheless advanced stubbornly, ‘Spanish-style’, despite Manuilsky’s failure to predict it, and despite the fact that the party which should have had the ‘historic, leading role’ scarcely existed.

When the monarchy fell, in April 1931, the Spanish section of the Communist International had scarcely 800 members. What was worse, it had very little influence among the proletariat and a very low theoretical level. This last factor was common to the whole of the Spanish labour movement. Neither the socialists nor the anarcho-syndicalists—the two great tendencies between which the Spanish proletariat had been divided since the 19th century—had a clear idea of the nature of the revolutionary process which was beginning in 1930–1. The socialists thought it was a purely bourgeois revolution and held to their ‘minimum programme’; the bourgeois republican parties, they thought, should take the helm of the republic. The most the socialist party should do was to give them loyal co-operation in carrying out a programme of reforms which would also be in the interests of the Spanish working class. In a word, it was ready to follow the path of European social democracy. The anarcho-syndicalists started from the same assumption—that the revolution was purely bourgeois—but their conclusions for action were quite the reverse: there should be no collaboration with the 14 April Republic. They should carry on to the social revolution to establish ‘libertarian communism’. The communists had no clear directives from Moscow in the early months, and improvised on the basis of the ultra-left general line of the Comintern in this period. Their position was summed up in the slogans: ‘Down with the bourgeois republic of the capitalists, the generals and the Church!’ and ‘For the republic of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ soviets!’ The first slogan was typically Spanish, almost anarcho-syndicalist, and the second was quite out of place.

The Spanish cp leadership had adopted its position in consultation with the Comintern representatives, footnote2 but Moscow put all the blame on the Spanish leaders. The Comintern Executive Committee sent an open letter, dated 21 May 1931, to the Central Committee of the pce, pointing out the party’s mistakes. The most serious was that they had not understood the ‘bourgeois democratic’ nature of the revolution and the ‘leading role’ the pce should have played in such a revolution. Among the directives given in the letter was the slogan ‘for the creation of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ soviets’; the soviets would be ‘the moving force in completing the democratic revolution and ensuring its development into the socialist revolution’. The pce, according to the ‘letter’, should use ‘the furious resistance of the anarcho-syndicalist and reformist leaders to show the counter-revolutionary nature of Spanish reformism and anarcho-syndicalism’. One of the most telling directives in the document (which the pce took as its guideline for 1931–2) was that ‘the communist party should in no circumstances, or for a single moment, make pacts or alliances with any other political force.’

Evidently the Comintern had rather an odd way of correcting the sectarianism of the pce leadership. In April 1931 a struggle began between the leadership of the pce and the Comintern, and it grew worse in the following months. Once the pce had understood the absurdity of its original positions, it took an orientation which in some respects was quite close to Trotsky’s early analysis of the Spanish revolution, at the same time showing a certain amount of independence towards the representatives of the Comintern in Spain. (The foremost of these, Codovilla, acted as if he was the real general secretary of the party, which in effect he was and continued to be until the civil war, when higher level functionaries came on the scene.) The struggle came to a head with General Sanjurjo’s attempted coup d’état (10 August 1932). The pce leadership called for the ‘defence of the Republic’, and the Comintern leadership described this position as ‘opportunist’. Shortly afterwards Bullejos (general secretary), Adame, Vega and Trilla (who was the pce representative to the Comintern) were expelled from the leadership and later from the party, charged with forming a ‘sectarian opportunist group’.

The core of Trotsky’s position was that there could be no ‘bourgeois democratic’ stage restricted to the liquidation of ‘feudal survivals’ under the hegemony of the proletariat, between the current stage of the Spanish revolution under the hegemony of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie and the proletarian stage under the hegemony of the working class (the dictatorship of the proletariat). The history of the Spanish revolution up to 1939 proved him right. In September 1932 he wrote: ‘The immediate task of Spanish communists is not to seize power, but to win the masses. In the coming period this struggle will develop on the basis of the bourgeois republic, and largely under democratic slogans.’ footnote3

The fact of the matter, however, was that no one in either Moscow or Madrid knew what was going to happen. No sooner had the ‘Church republic’ been proclaimed than it seemed the graveyard of churches, and the generals quickly turned to plotting against the ‘generals’ republic’. The new Spanish Constitution attempted to clarify the situation by declaring it to be ‘a republic of workers of all classes’.

But the upper-class ‘workers’ were rushing to get their capital out of the country, while the lower-class workers were declaring strikes and invading the big estates, with the explicit aim of reducing it to a republic of one class only. The Constitution defined Spain as a ‘single State’, but accepted the autonomy principle, so that the nationalities on the periphery which had borne the weight of Castillian centralism since the 16th century tended to break up the ‘single State’ into three or four. Azana announced the astounding news that Spain ‘was no longer Catholic’, while the Cortes, which had put Azaña at the head of the government, elected the deeply devout Alcala Zamora as President of the Republic. Araquistain confidently stated that ‘no people is by race [sic] so socialist as Spain’, while Unamuno came out for the fueros of Spanish individualism. No sooner had it come into the world than the Spanish republic displayed a thousand faces. Ortega y Gasset wisely said that ‘The contours of the Republic must be straightened out’: and while every well-read lady admired the profundity of the philosopher, the State police began ‘straightening it out’ by gunning down the peasantry. In a word, revolution ‘Spanish-style’ appeared somewhat complicated; but the Comintern did not hesitate to classify it as the type of ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution dealt with in the theory Lenin had developed for—Russia at the turn of the century.