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Socialism Today 103 - September 2006

The SWP & the Spanish civil war

A recent commemorative article in Socialist Worker on the Spanish civil war says a lot about the rightward political evolution of the SWP, argues BOB LABI.

ONE ASPECT OF recent developments on the left in Britain and elsewhere, has been the steady rightward evolution of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). While sometimes still putting forward radical sounding slogans, the SWP’s daily demands are usually of a quite timid character and definitely not socialist.

In many aspects the SWP has adopted the same day-to-day approach as the old Communist Party of Great Britain (CP) in politics and methods. The CP, which dissolved itself in 1991, for decades tailored its political demands to the general view of what was then the ‘official’ left within the trade unions and the Labour Party. Even when the CP initiated any campaign it was always kept on a low political level; any attempt to argue for socialist ideas was viewed as ‘adventurist’, ‘sectarian’ or ‘ultra-left’.

The SWP has adopted the old CP’s method of fundamentally limiting its political material to what it judges to be today’s consciousness. This means rejecting any idea of attempting to skilfully provide a bridge between today’s understanding and the acceptance of socialist ideas. In this way the SWP have long ago turned their backs on Lenin’s approach in the 1917 Russian revolution of campaigning on immediate issues (‘Bread, Peace, Land’) while linking them with the need to change society (‘All Power to the Soviets’), a method Trotsky later summed up in the Transitional Programme he drafted for the founding of the Fourth International. At the same time the SWP mimics the old CP’s stressing of ‘unity’ as a means of avoiding debate on what the basis and component parts of any united action should be. Instead of a ‘united front’ approach, seeking unity in action while continuing where necessary political debate, the SWP simply calls for ‘unity’ and ‘solidarity’.

A striking example of this is a recent major article in Socialist Worker to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, (‘Fighting the fascists, creating a new world’, 22 July 2006) written by Andy Durgan, a member of their small Spanish sister group who was also the historical advisor for Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom.

A central point of Durgan’s article is that the "struggle against fascism in 1936 starkly posed the need for left unity". But, despite later commenting that "the revolution and its supporters were attacked in the name of unity" by Stalin, Durgan does not outline a clear opinion on what he means by ‘unity’. Indeed much of the article has an abstract quality about it, containing individual points that Marxists would agree on and yet no concrete conclusions.

The reasons why the Spanish workers were defeated and subjected to decades of repression by the Franco dictatorship are not simply of historic interest. While today in Western Europe fascism may seem to belong to a long ago era, it would be wrong to conclude that the workers’ movement will never again face the danger of reaction or counter-revolution.

Currently the capitalist system is not being directly challenged in most countries. Even where recently, as in France, there have been mass struggles these have not consciously put capitalism’s continued existence into question. But the combination of events and further struggles will prepare the way for a resurgence of large-scale support for socialist ideas. In such situations capitalism itself could be threatened by a resurgent socialist movement which will then face an important question, namely how will the ruling elite seek to preserve their wealth and power?

Determined mass movements can sweep away opposition from the old rulers. But also situations can become more complicated when struggles become protracted and reaction is given an opportunity to organise itself. The brutality and lies of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq and its recent de facto support for the Israeli state’s attacks on Lebanese civilians stand as warnings of how, in the future, at least sections of the ruling class will be prepared to act ruthlessly in defence of their own interests.

This is why discussion of experiences like the Spanish civil war are not abstract. Obviously events do not simply repeat themselves and the world has changed enormously over the past seventy years. But there are lessons to be learnt from history, which this Socialist Worker article fails to do, because it avoids drawing concrete conclusions from the experience of Spain in the 1930s and keeps to generalisations that can be interpreted in conflicting ways.

In Spain, as Trotsky repeatedly pointed out, the working class attempted again and again to change society. When the civil war broke out the working class not only physically fought against the fascist uprising but strove to take over society. Where successful, the workers’ counter-attack against the initial fascist uprising meant that power was, de facto, in their hands. The key to defeating the Franco-led forces actually lay in completely overthrowing capitalism and landlordism in the Republican areas and then organising a revolutionary war.

But these movements, and the threat they posed to the continued existence of capitalism and landlordism in Spain, terrified the main leaders of the Spanish workers’ organisations. These leaders, not having any real wish to overthrow capitalism, based all their hopes of defeating Franco on an alliance with what they saw as the ‘democratic’ capitalists. This was despite the fact that these elements were actually only the remnants of the capitalist class, the vast majority of whom were supporting the fascist uprising.

Nevertheless this policy led the majority of workers’ leaders to first of all attempt to neutralise the gains workers made in mid-1936. Then, in May 1937, the workers’ desire to change society was crushed in what was really a counter-revolution, centred in Barcelona, within the ‘Republican’ camp spearheaded by the Spanish Communist Party. George Orwell’s book, Homage to Catalonia, is an eyewitness account of both how the Spanish working class, particularly in Barcelona, was attempting to change society and how that movement was crushed by the Spanish CP, thereby preparing the way for Franco’s victory.

This is why Franco’s victory cannot be explained by a lack of ‘unity’. The Spanish CP leadership repeatedly attacked the most radicalised and revolutionary sections of the working class in the name of ‘unity’. What the CP meant by this ‘unity’, the so-called ‘Popular Front’, was the alliance with ‘democratic’ capitalist politicians and thereby the maintaining of capitalism.

Soon after the CP-led defeat of the Barcelona workers in May 1937 Trotsky wrote The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning in which he explained:

"The theoreticians of the Popular Front do not essentially go beyond the first rule of arithmetic, that is, addition: ‘Communists’ plus Socialists plus Anarchists plus liberals add up to a total which is greater than their respective isolated numbers. Such is all their wisdom. However, arithmetic alone does not suffice here. One needs as well at least mechanics. The law of the parallelogram of forces applies to politics as well. In such a parallelogram, we know that the resultant is shorter, the more component forces diverge from each other. When political allies tend to pull in opposite directions, the resultant may prove equal to zero.

"A bloc of divergent political groups of the working class is sometimes completely indispensable for the solution of common practical problems. In certain historical circumstances, such a bloc is capable of attracting the oppressed petty-bourgeois masses whose interests are close to the interests of the proletariat. The joint force of such a bloc can prove far stronger than the sum of the forces of each of its component parts. On the contrary, the political alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose interests on basic questions in the present epoch diverge at an angle of 180 degrees, as a general rule is capable only of paralysing the revolutionary force of the proletariat.

"Civil war, in which the force of naked coercion is hardly effective, demands of its participants the spirit of supreme self-abnegation. The workers and peasants can assure victory only if they wage a struggle for their own emancipation. Under these conditions, to subordinate the proletariat to the leadership of the bourgeoisie means beforehand to assure defeat in the civil war".

No criticism of the POUM’s role

AS THE Socialist Worker article says the CP was actually quite small. Indeed at that time in Spain the biggest workers’ organisation was the anarchist-led union, the CNT, followed by the Socialist Party (PSOE) and its union, the UGT.

Durgan tells how "in November 1936, four anarchist leaders joined the very Popular Front government that would undermine the revolution". But this implied criticism of the anarchist leaders stands in contrast to what is written later regarding the decision of the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) leaders who, along with anarchist leaders, had joined the regional Catalan government in September. Durgan simply puts forward the position of the POUM leaders, that the party "did not have sufficient strength on its own and thus, fearing being isolated, baulked at breaking with the leadership of the CNT, and in Catalonia, for example, followed the anarchists into government". He does not comment on whether this was the right thing to have done.

Perhaps Durgan thinks that there was a difference between joining the Catalan regional government and the national government? But the Catalan government was not revolutionary. In Barcelona the anarchists had three posts (economics, supply and health) while the POUM leader Nin headed the justice department. But bourgeois politicians held all the key government positions of the premiership, interior and defence. Within four days of this Catalan government being formed the Anti-Fascist Militias Committee, which the historian Hugh Thomas described as "the driving-force" of the fight against the fascist uprising, was dissolved and its sub-committees merged with those of the regional government. The entry of the anarchists and POUM into the Catalan government opened the way to attempts to wind up the organisations that workers had formed in the course of their fight back against Franco. The capitalist politicians wanted these type of organisations removed because they rightly feared that they had the potential to develop into the basis of a workers’ state. Thus there was nothing ‘progressive’ about the anarchists and POUM joining this government.

Durgan’s article is really a justification of the policy of the POUM. This party had been formed in 1935 by Trotskyists such as Andrés Nin and other left-wingers previously expelled from the now Stalinised Spanish Communist Party (PCE). However the POUM was founded on an unclear basis and soon signed up for the ‘Popular Front’, the alliance of PSOE, PCE and liberal capitalist parties that had been created to stand in the February 1936 elections. This decision led Trotsky, who for some time previously had been openly criticising Nin’s policies within the Trotskyist movement, to come out publicly against the POUM’s policies.

Notwithstanding its political weaknesses the POUM was seen as the most left wing party in Spain and grew enormously in 1936, especially in the revolutionary movement provoked by the July 17 fascist uprising. Within a few months it reached 60,000 members.

Peter Taaffe, in his recent review of Anthony Beevor’s book, Battle for Spain (The Socialist, July 13, 2006), explained the possibilities that were open to the POUM, especially in May 1937 when the Republican government, spurred on by the PCE, moved to crush revolutionary Barcelona:

"This was a classic case where a small but determined revolutionary party like the POUM could have won over the masses. But, instead of openly campaigning for a militant, conscious policy of resistance and for the completion of the revolution, the POUM leaders went for diplomacy behind the scenes with the CNT leaders. This gave the initiative to the counter-revolution, which denounced the POUM and the anarchist organisation, Friends of Durruti, as ‘agents provocateurs’.

"Cheered on and organised by the Stalinists, the counter-revolution crushed the movement in Barcelona and effectively liquidated the Spanish revolution. All the horrors of Stalinist barbarity were now unleashed in the secret prisons, the use of torture, the assassination of the POUM leader Nin, and the similar deaths of anarchists and other workers which Beevor describes".

But nowhere in Durgan’s article is there any hint of criticism towards the POUM leaders. In fact he is uncritical when he writes that "only the small revolutionary party, the POUM, posed an alternative strategy". He implies that the POUM’s main problem was that it "did not have sufficient strength". This, of course, is the major issue for Marxists. The question we all face is how to win majority support within the working class for our programme and then be able to change society. But this is not simply an organisational challenge, it is primarily a political one. What programme and methods are needed to achieve this goal?

Trotsky defended what he called ‘the revolutionary wing’ (‘Trotskyists’, POUMists, left Socialists, left Anarchists) from the Stalinists’ ruthless repression, but at the same time strove to draw political conclusions from the massive defeat in Spain. Writing in 1939 he spoke of the POUM’s "fatal malady… (of) not being capable of drawing courageous tactical and organisational conclusions from its general conceptions". A little over a year later, in one of his last, unfinished, writings, Trotsky summarised his opinion:

"To the left of all the other parties in Spain stood the POUM, which undoubtedly embraced revolutionary proletarian elements not previously firmly tied to anarchism. But it was precisely this party that played a fatal role in the development of the Spanish revolution. It could not become a mass party because in order to do so it was first necessary to overthrow the old parties and it was possible to overthrow them only by an irreconcilable struggle, by a merciless exposure of their bourgeois character.

"Yet the POUM, while criticising the old parties, subordinated itself to them on all fundamental questions. It participated in the ‘Popular’ election bloc; entered the [Catalan] government that liquidated workers’ committees; engaged in a struggle to reconstitute this government coalition; capitulated time and again to the Anarchist leadership; conducted, in connection with this, a false trade union policy; and took a vacillating and non-revolutionary attitude toward the May 1937 [Barcelona] uprising". (The Class, the Party, and the Leadership. Why was the Spanish proletariat defeated?, August 1940)

None of these issues which Trotsky spent many years debating are even hinted at in Durgan’s article. But this is not a surprise. In their day-to-day activity the SWP and its sister groupings argue that, as there is not currently a widespread socialist consciousness, it is ‘sectarian’ to even attempt to argue for socialist ideas. Thus within Respect the SWP is effectively on the right wing while in Germany its sister group, Linksruck, battles alongside Oskar Lafontaine against the left wing within the WASG.

In this way the SWP is becoming more and more to politically resemble the POUM, radical, even occasionally ‘revolutionary’ in words, but in practice not daring to openly criticise its current allies out of fear of breaking ‘unity’. Thankfully the SWP does not have the strength, particularly within the working class, to play the same role that the POUM did in 1930s Spain.

Although they happened many decades ago the class struggles of the 1920s and 1930s can still provide many lessons for activists in today’s quite different conditions. But to do this it is necessary to draw the correct conclusions, something the SWP is incapable of doing.


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