THE TRAGIC events in Barcelona at the beginning of May were not caused, as has been claimed, by an outburst of stupidity or an act of collective madness. Events of such magnitude, which threw sizeable masses into struggle, bathed the streets of the Catalan capital in blood and cost the lives of hundreds of men, are not produced by caprice: they were a response to profound and powerful causes.
We leave it to the sentimental petty bourgeois to “lament” what happened without pausing to examine the causes of the events; we leave it to the counter-revolutionaries, whose only concern is to smother the revolution, to condemn the movement. It is the duty of true revolutionaries to examine what caused the events and to draw the necessary lessons.
The Military-Fascist Insurrection
The fascist insurrection of 19 July was not a simple act of rebellion by a few military “traitors”, but the culmination, in an acute and violent form, of the struggle begun in Spain between revolution and counter-revolution. The masses’ democratic illusions had been seriously shaken, but were revived by the victory of the labour-republican bloc in the elections of 16 February and the consequent formation of a government of the Left. The working class soon realised that reaction, despite its defeat at the ballot box, had not disarmed but, on the contrary, was preparing with redoubled ardour to take to the streets intent on blocking the advance of the proletarian revolution and installing a dictatorial regime.
The July insurrection occurred after five months’ experience of a new government that demonstrated the absolute impotence of the petty-bourgeois Left to put an end to the fascist danger, or resolve in a progressive way the many political problems the country faced. It fully confirmed the viewpoint, repeatedly expressed by the POUM, that the new experience of the Left would fail, and that a struggle was posed not between democracy and fascism but between fascism and socialism, that this struggle would take an armed form and could not be resolved in favour of the workers and against fascism except by the victory of proletarian revolution, which would solve the problems of the bourgeois democratic revolution and simultaneously begin the socialist transformation of society.
War and Revolution
Thanks to the splendid heroism of the working class, which was unshakeably determined to fight to the death to prevent the victory of fascism, the military insurrection was crushed on 19 July in Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia. Thanks to that prodigious heroism in the battlefields by thousands of workers who immediately and enthusiastically joined the militias, Franco was unable to achieve the victory which he thought quick and certain but which, after ten months of civil war, appears less and less likely.
At the same time as the fascist insurrection was crushed in the most important cities, and the military struggle at the front began, the workers formed revolutionary committees and seized control of the factories, the peasants took possession of the land, they burned down convents and churches – the centres of fascist reaction – in a word, the revolution began, and the old organs of bourgeois power were turned into phantoms. War and revolution, therefore, appeared inseparable from the first moment. Having defeated the insurrection, the workers set about the revolutionary work, whose conquests they defended, and continue to defend, in the trenches. To claim, as the Spanish Communist Party and the PSUC in Catalonia do, that the workers at the front are fighting for the democratic republic, is to betray the proletarian and prepare the ground for a new and victorious attack by fascist reaction.
No one should accept the argument that the struggle in the rear for the socialist revolution favours the plans of the enemy at the front. On the contrary, only an audacious revolutionary policy in the rear, one that is unequivocally socialist, is capable of giving the fighters the courage and moral strength that will make them invincible, and of organising the economy and the war industries with the efficiency necessary to achieve a rapid and overwhelming military victory.
The Advance of Counter-Revolution
Nevertheless, by exploiting the “war difficulties”, the republican bourgeoisie, using as their instrument the reformist parties – specifically the official Communist Party and the PSUC – worked tenaciously and systematically to smother the proletarian revolution: progressively cutting back the conquests of the working class and persecuting its organisations and newspapers, with the aim of restoring the bourgeois state machine and consolidating capitalist rule.
The main signs of the counter-revolutionary plan were: the POUM’s removal from the government of the Generalidad, the partial disarming, up to now, of the working class, the persecution of the CNT’s organ in Madrid, the suspension of La Batalla, the seizure of Combatiente Rojo’s print shop and of our party’s radio station in the capital of the Republic, the arrest of the CNT regional committee in Vizcaya, the suspension of Nosostros in Valencia, the imprisonment of Maroto, a brave anarchist militant, in Almeria, the decrees on public order and the suppression of the people’s courts in Catalonia, the offensive against revolutionary flags, with the aim of replacing them with a “national” flag, the attempt to reconstitute the old bourgeois army through the creation of a Popular Army of automatons, without revolutionary spirit, in the service of bourgeois democracy, the institution of political! censorship, the offensive against the control patrols, etc.
In parallel with the creation of this counter-revolutionary plan, a systematic campaign has been conducted against the CNT and the POUM to defame and discredit us, denouncing our members, who have contributed with the greatest sacrifice and heroism to the war against fascism, as agents of Hitler and Mussolini, resorting to every means, admissible and inadmissible, to establish the monopoly of a party that was originally communist and revolutionary but is today surrendered body and soul to the bourgeoisie, plotting manoeuvres and campaigns against the committees, sabotaging the collectivisation of the economy, ending the control of distribution and sales to benefit spivs and speculators, organising ostentatious and provocative counter-revolutionary demonstrations, and, finally, creating a completely unjustified attitude of ideological hostility towards the revolutionary working class organisations within the state forces.
These actions produced a justified state of anxiety within the working class, who were alarmed that their gains were being snatched away, as the counter-revolution continually advanced. For its part, reformism – the direct agent of the counter-revolution – encouraged by its advances, became more and more insolent and intensified its policy of provocation. In the week preceding the tragic events, the revolutionary workers lived in a state of nervous tension which reached a climax as a result of the attempt to occupy Figueras by the carabineers, the events in Puigcerd and the funeral of the UGT militant Roldán Cortada, the victim of a crime that we did not hesitate to condemn energetically, and which was the pretext for organising a demonstration of a clearly counter-revolutionary character.
In those circumstances, on the afternoon of 3 May, the police, on the authority of A. Aiguadé, the Minister for internal security and representative of the Esquerra in the government of the Generalidad, under the personal and immediate direction of Rodríguez Salas, the commissioner general of public order and a member of the PSUC, attempted to occupy the Telefónica building, which was controlled by a workers’ organisation. They considered the conditions ripe to attack one of the positions conquered by the proletariat in July. It was a trial run, not yet a decisive and comprehensive attack, but it was a serious miscalculation. The workers at the Telefónica responded energetically to the assault, and a violent confrontation ensued. The government and the trade union committees intervened quickly and published a very vague statement which gave the impression that the conflict was about to be resolved.
But the angry workers were not satisfied with this. They understood that it was not a question of an isolated action, that all their conquests were in danger, and they took up arms spontaneously, surrounded the Telefónica, raised barricades throughout the city and began a bloody struggle, which in its extent and violence was unprecedented in the history of our revolutionary movement, and left hundreds of dead and wounded.
The reformist elements claimed that the vigorous reaction of the Barcelona proletariat was the result of a fascist provocation, encouraged by our party. Masters of calumny and defamation, they tried to avoid their own enormous responsibility for the bloodshed by blaming it on the revolutionaries.
The May Days were the direct and immediate consequence of a monstrous provocation by the PSUC. In order to carry out its plans it used Rodríguez Salas, a low life imitation Noske and traitor to the revolutionary proletariat. In those circumstances, to present the events of May as a “fratricidal struggle”, as a violent fight between “the two trade union centres”, is a deliberate falsification, since everyone knows perfectly well that the fight arose between the revolutionary workers, including some in the UGT, and part of the police. The problem that was resolved on the streets was not a simple one of trade union rivalry, but a much deeper problem. The workers who took to the streets, arms in hand, represented the interests of the proletariat at that historic moment.
The Attitude of the POUM
Our party has repeatedly insisted, during these recent times, on the need to provide a political solution to the problems which have arisen during the war and revolution. We even declared that the working class could take power without the need to resort to armed insurrection: it would be enough to bring its enormous influence into play for the relationship of forces to decide in its favour, to achieve a workers’ and peasants’ government without violence of any kind. Failure to confront the problem in these terms, on the political plane, would sooner or later produce a violent explosion, of the accumulated anger of the working class and, as a result, a movement that would be spontaneous, chaotic and lacking in immediate perspectives.
Our predictions have been borne out. The provocative attitude of the counter-revolution caused the explosion. But once the workers were in the streets, our party had to adopt a position. Which? To keep out of the movement, to condemn it or to solidarise with it? Our choice was not difficult. Neither the first nor the second attitude squared with our character as a working class and revolutionary party, and without a moment’s hesitation we opted for the third: to offer our active solidarity with the movement, even though we knew in advance that it could not succeed.
If the decision had depended on us, we would not have ordered the insurrection, as the moment was not favourable for a decisive action. But the revolutionary workers, justifiably indignant at the provocation of which they were the victims, threw themselves into battle, and we could not abandon them. To act otherwise would have been an unpardonable betrayal.
We had to do so, not only because we are a revolutionary party, morally obliged to stand by the workers when, rightly or wrongly, they enter into battle in defence of their conquests, but also because of the need to help channel a movement which because of its spontaneity had many chaotic aspects, in order to avoid it being transformed into a fruitless putsch, which would have resulted in a bloody defeat for the proletariat.
The armed struggle developed in such a way because of the impetus of the revolutionary workers and the importance of the strategic positions they held, that it would have been possible to take power. But our party, as a minority force within the workers’ movement, could not take the responsibility of issuing such a slogan given the attitude of the leaders of the CNT and FAI, whose Barcelona radio called urgently for the workers to abandon the struggle immediately, creating confusion and bewilderment among the combatants. In these circumstances, to call on the workers to take power would inevitably have been to launch a putsch which would have had fatal consequences for the proletariat.
It was necessary to provide limited slogans for the movement. That is what our party did, demanding the dismissal of Rodríguez Salas and Aiguadé, who were directly responsible for the provocation, the annulment of the reactionary decrees on public order and the creation of committees for the defence of the revolution. When we estimated that if the movement continued it would inevitably lead to failure – not because of any lack of fighting spirit on the part of the workers, who had achieved truly prodigious feats of heroism, but because of the disorientation caused by the attitude of the leading committees of the revolutionary syndicalist organisations – we considered that in the interests of the proletariat the struggle should be brought to an end.
But for this to happen, we considered two conditions were necessary: that the state forces should withdraw and that he workers should keep their arms. The continued presence of the state forces on the streets could be interpreted as a defeat of the working class, when in reality it had effected a strategic retreat. In addition, it would constitute a provocation liable to promote new and violent clashes. Disarmament would mean depriving the proletariat of the most reliable guarantee of their conquests and deprive them of the means to resist any counter-revolutionary attempt or fascist coup. On the morning of 8 May we advised the workers to abandon the fight and return to work, while advancing those slogans.
We take pride in declaring that the stance of our party, whose prestige has grown considerably among the revolutionary workers, contributed effectively to ending the bloody struggle that had taken place in the streets of Barcelona and prevented the workers’ movement from being crushed by ferocious repression.
Any honest person reading this brief account of the origin, development and outcome of the May Days, will easily see what were the true causes of the tragedy. Our party – which is now attacked by counter-revolutionaries of every kind – played no part in provoking it – contrary to the claims of those whose sole objective is to defend the interests of the bourgeoisie, and to smother the glorious revolution begun on 19 July – strictly fulfilled the duty imposed on it by its unshakeable loyalty to the workers’ cause.
The Lessons of the May Days
The working class must learn the necessary lessons from the bloody May Days, which are bound to have an enormous significance for the future development of the Spanish revolution, if its generous sacrifice is not to be in vain.
First lesson. The abundant propaganda produced during recent months by the petty bourgeoisie and reformism in favour of anti-fascist unity has the sole object of exploiting the working masses’ desire for unity and their hatred of fascism in order to strangle the revolution and re-establish the bourgeois state machine.
Second lesson. The campaign conducted under the slogans, “first win the war, then carry out the revolution”, and “everything for the war”, conceals the real aim of smothering the revolution. It is an indispensable premise for leaving the hands free to negotiate a “white” peace. The progressive suppression of the revolutionary gains, the threat of foreign intervention, which was about to happen when foreign warships arrived at the port of Barcelona, the increasingly insistent rumours, of a possible “embrace of Vergara” , coinciding with the provocation of 3 May, are a clear proof of this.
Third lesson. For the proletariat and for military victory there is only one progressive way out of the present situation: the conquest of power. During the May Days that was possible but did not happen because the traditional organisations, inspired by anarchist doctrine, did not face up to the problem and because our party, which has not ceased to confront it during the entire course of the revolution, is a young and minority organisation, which does not have enough support to take the responsibility to direct the struggle. The immediate and fundamental mission of the proletariat is to prepare to overthrow the political power of the bourgeoisie.
Therefore, it is necessary to build the “Workers’ Revolutionary Front”, that is to say, to form an alliance of those workers’ organisations that are ready to form a barrier against the advance of the bourgeois counter-revolution and to drive the proletarian revolution forward. One of the concrete forms of this Workers’ Revolutionary Front can be the COMMITTEES FOR THE DEFENCE OF THE REVOLUTION, which must be built immediately in all the workplaces, in all the neighbourhoods, in all the localities, and which must co-ordinate their activity through a CENTRAL DEFENCE COMMITTEE which expresses the will of all the committees.
Fourth lesson. The victory of the working class is impossible without a responsible leadership, that knows what it wants and where it is going, and co-ordinates the struggle. THE WORKERS’ REVOLUTIONARY FRONT can be the indispensable basis of that leadership.
Fifth lesson. The conduct of the Spanish Communist Party and its subsidiary the PSUC in Catalonia during the May Days has demonstrated that these parties do not represent a mere reformist tendency in the workers’ movement, but constitute the vanguard and the instrument of bourgeois counter-revolution. For that reason, while a united front with these parties is indispensable, for the struggle against fascism, as it is with the petty bourgeois organisations, any possibility of common political action must be ruled out. The representatives of the revolutionary proletariat and of the executioners of the working class cannot sit at the same table. To that Popular Anti-Fascist Front, synonymous with class collaboration and political counter-revolution, it is necessary to oppose the WORKERS’ REVOLUTIONARY FRONT. FOR THE DEFENCE OF THE REVOLUTION! FOR A WORKERS’ AND PEASANTS’ GOVERNMENT!
The struggle under way in Spain between revolution and counter-revolution is now entering a new phase, in which the proletariat, educated by the experience of these months of struggle and, above all, by the magnificent May Days, must direct all its forces towards strengthening its class independence, defending the conquests of the revolution and preparing for the taking of power, the indispensable premise for the institution of a socialist regime which will regenerate the country’s economy and establish order. Let no one say that the revolution will lose us the war, to whose victorious outcome we have to dedicate the greatest efforts. There are well founded reasons to believe that the “democratic” powers are actively intriguing to impose an armistice that the Spanish workers indignantly reject. As the revolutionary organisations are the main obstacle to these shady deals there is a plan to eliminate us from public life, by one means or another.
However, the working class will not allow itself to be misled, but will defend the conquests it has made and take power, with the same heroic impulse with which it defeated fascism in Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona on the 19 July and generously shed its blood in the battlefields, convinced that only the victorious proletarian revolution can bring the war to its final consequences: the crushing of fascism and the establishment of socialism.
LONG LIVE THE COMMITTEES FOR THE DEFENCE OF THE REVOLUTION! LONG LIVE THE WORKERS’ AND PEASANTS’ GOVERNMENT!
Barcelona, 12 May 1937. Central Committee of the POUM.
1. This piece first appeared as a statement by the Central Committee of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), under the title El significada y alcance de las jornados de mayo frente a la contrarrevolution. The original can be consulted on the Fundación Andreu Nin website (www.fundanin.org). We are grateful to John Sullivan for checking and amending the translation.
2. The embrace of generals Espartero and Maroto at Vegara in 1839 ended the first Carlist war.