Thursday, 9 April 2009

Lessons of The Spanish Civil War

Seventy years ago worker and socialists fought and lost a Civil War in Spain. The lessons of that War, and the defeat, should be learned by socialists today. The Spanish Revolution and the fight of the working class against fascism were a testing ground for ideas. There are many ideas discussed by Trotsky during these events that are relevant for Marxists today in what is going on in Iraq, and the fight against clerical-fascism. The following extracts are taken from from the collection of Trotsky’s Writings on the Spanish Civil War unless otherwise stated. Some of those writings can be found online Here .

As far back as 1930, we see Trotsky arguing, with the fall of the Rivera dictatorship, not that workers should be limiting their sights to bourgeois democracy, not to the idea that bourgeois demcoracy was somehow good in itself, faced with the possibility of reaction, but that they should, necessarily, have their sights set on a socialist transformation.

“25 May, 1930

The Primo de Rivera dictatorship has fallen, without a revolution, from internal exhaustion. In the beginning, in other words, the question was decided by the sickness of the old society and not by the revolutionary forces of a new society…
The workers’ struggle must be closely linked to all the questions that flow from the national crisis. The fact that the workers demonstrated with the students is the first step, though still an insufficient and hesitant one, on the proletarian vanguard’s road of struggle toward revolutionary hegemony.

Taking this road presupposes that the communists will struggle resolutely, audaciously, and energetically for democratic slogans. Not to understand this would be to commit the greatest sectarian mistake. At the present stage of the revolution, the proletariat distinguishes itself in the field of political slogans from all the “leftist” petty-bourgeois groupings not by rejecting democracy (as the anarchists and syndicalists do) but by struggling resolutely and openly for it, at the same time mercilessly denouncing the hesitations of the petty bourgeoisie.

By advancing democratic slogans, the proletariat is not in any way suggesting that Spain is heading toward a bourgeois revolution. Only barren pedants full of pat, ready-made formulas could pose the question this way. Spain has left the stage of bourgeois revolution far behind.

If the revolutionary crisis is transformed into a revolution, it will inevitably pass beyond bourgeois limits, and in the event of victory the power will have to come into the hands of the proletariat. But in this epoch, the proletariat can lead the revolution — that is, group the broadest masses of the workers and the oppressed around itself and become their leader — only on the condition that it now unreservedly puts forth all the democratic demands, in conjunction with its own class demands…”

But, its important to understand clearly what Trotsky is saying here. In saying that the workers must struggle for these democratic demands, is Trotsky advocating that the workers struggle for bourgeois democracy as somehow good in itself, a staging post on the road to socialism, and because it is progressive compared with the threat of fascism? No he most certainly is not saying that. When Trotsky speaks here about the workers putting forth these democratic demands what he has in mind is not at all bourgeois democracy, but those demands such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom to create and belong to Trade Unions and Political Parties etc. all of which are important for the working class to be able to advance its own cause. He makes that clear when he combines the struggle for these demands with the struggle for the working class’s “own class demands.” In other words, Trotsky is arguing for a defence of those bourgeois freedoms that facilitate the organisation and mobilisation of the working-class, and which the fascists would try to remove, but he is not putting forward a defence of bouregois democracy, precisely because, “Spain has left the stage of bourgeois revolution far behind”.

He then goes on to make clear how the workers should fight for these democratic and class demands specifically in relation to democratic demands in relation to the National Question.

“Even on national questions, the proletariat defends the democratic slogans to the hilt, declaring that it is ready to support by revolutionary means the right of different national groups to self-determination, even to the point of separation.”

In other words the working class does not fight even for these democratic demands using the methods of bourgeois demcoracy, but by using the methods of proletarian revolutionary struggle, and that method of revolutionary struggle can only be undertaken on the basis of the revolutionary organsiation of the working class and peasantry through organs of struggle based not on bourgeois democracy, but workers democracy on the basis of factory committees, peasant committees, and workers committees in the workers districts. In other words by all those methods which Trotsky outlined in the Action Programme for France.

See: A Prograame of Action For France .

And by struggling for these demands by using the methods of proletarian struggle, by developing the organs of workers democracy as the basis for this struggle then,

“The more quickly their best elements join us, the sooner the democratic republic will be identified in the mind of the masses with the workers’ republic…”

And explaining this route to the workers, of achieving this demand, has as its goal “sowing the seeds for the future Soviet system”. A Soviet system which necessarily grows up out of those organs of workers democracy. Later Trotsky spells it out even more clearly.

““What kind of revolution do you have in mind,” the philistines of the Popular Front demand of us, “democratic or socialist? The victory of Largo Caballero’s army over Franco would mean the victory of democracy over fascism, that is, the victory of progress over reaction.””

This argument is almost identical to that put forward for not calling for the removal of imperialism from Iraq or seeing imperialism and bourgeois democracy as “progressive” etc. The argument that was put forward by by groups such as the AWL, and others further to its Right.

Trotsky continues,

“One cannot listen to these arguments with a bitter smile. Before 1934 we explained to the Stalinists tirelessly that, even in the imperialist epoch, democracy continued to be preferable to fascism; that is, in all cases where hostile clashes take place between them, the revolutionary proletariat is obliged to support democracy against fascism.

However, we always added: We can and must defend bourgeois democracy not by bourgeois democratic means but by the methods of class struggle, which in turn pave the way for the replacement of bourgeois democracy by the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

He could not be clearer not by bourgeois democratic means, but by methods of class struggle, and that necessarily means by the developmnent of organs of working class struggle through the development of workers democracy. In other words, by all those methods set out in the Action Programme for France, of Factory Committees, Peasant Committees, Workers Militia and so on.

The lesson here for Iraq faced with the fall of the Saddam dictatorship and the potential of clerical fascist reaction just as the Spanish working class was faced with the potential for fascist reaction after the fall of the Rivera dictatorship was not that the working class should put its faith in bourgeois democracy, but that it should put its faith in its own organisations and its own workers democracy as the surest way of defending itself against the attacks of the bourgeoisie in either of its guises – what Trotsky called ‘The Two Masks’, the democratic and the fascist. Yes it should fight for those democratic demands which facilitate its own organisation and struggle, but even for those it should do so on the basis of its own organisation and methods not those of bourgeois Parliamentarism.

Of course the classic form of the tying of workers to bourgeois democracy, as its saviour, rather than encouraging the working class to rely on its own organisation and democracy, is the Popular Front the alliance between workers organisations and bourgeois parties for the defence of bourgeois democracy. It was the commitment to the Popular Front by all the workers parties in Spain which in the end strangled the working class.

Another similarity can be seen with Iraq. Trotsky spoke of the need to dismantle those sections of the army which would be the guard of the bourgeoisie and gravediggers of the workers. The same role is played in Iraq by the forces of the Occupation, and the forces of the Iraqi government largely made up of members of the Shia clerical-fascist militias that are already breaking not just the heads of the workers, but of women, gays etc. on the streets of Iraq. The AWL argued that it is not right to call for the removal of the Occupation because it is “progressive” vis a vis the other clerical-fascists of the insurgency, and that this force made up of imperialist troops, Iraqi State forces provides the working class through its protection with a breathing space in which to develop. Trotsky gives his response to a similar argument in regard to Spain with the forces of Germany and Italy here playing the same part as that of the insurgency in Iraq.

“But here we are interrupted by the exclamation, “How can one dissolve the officers’ corps? Doesn’t this mean destroying the army and leaving the country disarmed in the face of fascism? Hitler and Mussolini are only waiting for that!” All these arguments are old and familiar. That’s how the Cadets, the Social Revolutionaries, and the Russian Mensheviks reasoned in 1917, and that’s how the leaders of the Spanish Popular Front reasoned. The Spanish workers half-believed these rationalisations until they were convinced by experience that the nearest fascist enemy was to be found in the Spanish fascist army. Not for nothing did our old friend Karl Liebknecht teach: “The main enemy is in our own country!””

Of course, its not just in Iraq that such an argument can be made. It applies equally well in many other instances. The israeli Defence forces, on the basis of the external threat to Israel represent a similar threat to the Israeli workers, though in a different setting. The Iranian Military certainly stand in a similar relation to the Iranian workers, as does the armed state power of Hamas in Gaza. The working class can never hand over the question of its own defence to the forces of the bourgeoisie.

We have yet to see whether Civil War in Iraq will break out when the Occupation leaves. Certainly, contrary to the AWL’s arguments about that Occupation providing abreathing space, we see a further similarity with Spain. Just as the bourgeoisie looked to Franco in Spain, now the US and its bouregois allies in Iraq look to some similar strongman to take th reins in Iraq. They have already prepared the way for that by militarily confronting the forces of Sadr, who represented the Jacobin element in Iraq, the impoverished petit-bourgeois layer, the unemployed etc. But, elsewhere we have seen similar struggles and Civil War, in Plaestine and Gaza for instance. The advice given by Trotsky for the attitude that Marxists should have dring such Civil Wars is instructive.

“In this new civil war, the proletariat could conquer only if it has at its head a revolutionary party that knows how to win the confidence of the majority of the workers and the semi-proletarian peasants. If such a party is not present at the critical moment, the civil war with the republican camp threatens to lead to a victory of Bonapartism that would differ very little in character from the dictatorship of General Franco. That is why the politics of the Popular Front are a round-about path to the very same fascism…

It is necessary to break sharply, decisively, boldly — the umbilical cord of bourgeois public opinion. It is necessary to break from the petty-bourgeois parties including the syndicalist leaders. It is necessary to think the situation through to the end. It is necessary to descend to the masses, to the lowest and most oppressed layers. It is necessary to stop lulling them with illusions of a future victory that will come by itself. It is necessary to tell them the truth, however bitter it may be. It is necessary to teach them to distrust the petty-bourgeois agencies of capital. It is necessary to teach them to trust in themselves. It is necessary to tie your fate to theirs inseparably. It is necessary to teach them to build their own combat organisation — soviets — in opposition to the bourgeois state.”

If a Civil War does break out in Iraq after the Occupation leaves, or scales back its operations, it will not just just have two camps that of the Sunni clerical fascists and their allies in Al Qaeda, and on the other the Shia clerical-fascists, nor just the likelihood of a drive for separation by the Kurdish nationalists. Another camp exists, that of the working class and its potential allies in the peasantry. That camp is extremely weak at the moment. But Trotsky’s advice above shows how to strengthen it. It is not by sowing illusions in bourgeois democracy. As Trotsky points out the Bolsheviks too were an insignificant minority in March 1917, but by correct orientation to the masses by building the workers democracy they changed that situation.

“Forty thousand members with a wavering and vacillating leadership are able only to disperse the proletariat and thereby to pave the way for catastrophe. Ten thousand, with a firm and perceptive leadership, can find the road to the masses, break them away from the influence of the Stalinists and Social Democrats, the charlatans and loudmouths, and assure them not just the episodic and uncertain victory of the republican troops over the fascist troops, but a total victory of the toilers over the exploiters. The Spanish proletariat has shown three times that it is able to carry out such a victory. The whole question is in the leadership!”

Except in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East the task is to win the masses away from the nationalists and clerics.

And as that Civil War develops in Iraq I cannot improve on Trostky’s advice for the working class.

“The conditions for victory of the masses in a civil war against the army of exploiters are very simple in their essence.

1. The fighters of a revolutionary army must be clearly aware of the fact that they are fighting for their full social liberation and not for the re-establishment of the old (“democratic”) forms of exploitation.

2. The workers and peasants in the rear of the revolutionary army as well as in the rear of the enemy must know and understand the same thing.

3. The propaganda on their own front as well as on the enemy front and in both rears must be completely permeated with the spirit of social revolution. The slogan “First victory, then reforms” is the slogan of the oppressors and exploiters from the Biblical kings down to Stalin.

4. Politics are determined by those class and strata that participate in the struggle. The revolutionary masses must have a state apparatus that directly and immediately expresses their will. Only the soviets of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies can act as such an apparatus.

5. The revolutionary army must not only proclaim but also immediately realise in life the more pressing measures of social revolution in the provinces won by them: the expropriation of provisions, manufactured articles, and other stores on hand and the transfer of these to the needy; the re-division of shelter and housing in the interests of the toilers and especially of the families of the fighters; the expropriation of the land and agricultural inventory in the interests of the peasants; the establishment of workers’ control and soviet power in place of the former bureaucracy.

6. Enemies of the socialist revolution, that is, exploiting elements and their agents, even if masquerading as “democrats”, “republicans”, “socialists” and “anarchists” must be mercilessly driven out of the army.

7. At the head of each military unit must be placed commissars possessing irreproachable authority as revolutionists and soldiers.

8. In every military unit there must be a firmly welded nucleus of the most self-sacrificing fighters, recommended by the workers’ organisations. The members of the nucleus have but one privilege: to be the first under fire.

9. The commanding corps necessarily includes at first many alien and unreliable elements among the personnel. Their testing, retesting and sifting must be carried through on the basis of combat experience, recommendations of commissars and testimonials of rank-and-file fighters. Coincident with this must proceed an intense training of commanders drawn from the ranks of revolutionary workers.

10. The strategy of civil war must combine the rules of military art with the tasks of the social revolution. Not only in propaganda but also in military operations it is necessary to take into account the social composition of the various military units of the enemy (bourgeois volunteers, mobilised peasants, or as in Franco’s case, colonial slaves); and in choosing lines of operation, it is necessary to rigorously take into consideration the social structure of the corresponding territories (industrial regions, peasant regions, revolutionary or reactionary, regions of oppressed nationalities, etc). In brief, revolutionary policy dominates strategy.

11. Both the revolutionary government and executive committee of the workers and peasants must know how to win the complete confidence of the army and of the toiling population.

12. Foreign policy must have as its main objective the awakening of the revolutionary consciousness of the workers, the exploited peasants, and oppressed nationalities of the whole world.”

Today, the working class is in a much weaker position than that of the Spanish workers. That only changes the chances of success in any such conflict, only demonstrates the tasks we have before us to strengthen and rebuild the working class movement, not the principles and strategy that need to be adopted.

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