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What happened on July 19th?

19 July, 2020 · History

Rey Vila, "July 19" published in "Images of the Spanish Revolution".

The year 1936 saw a strong recovery of the class struggle after the inevitable slump that followed the defeat of the failed insurrection of October 1934. In spring, the resignation of the President of the Spanish Republic opened the way for a fascist “way out” of the crisis. On July 17 and 18, a military uprising confirmed that a sector of Spain’s ruling class -the most reactionary one- had decided to take that path. But on the 19th, the “unexpected” general insurrection of the Spanish proletariat, overriding parties and unions, disarmed the armed reaction and seized power in 4/5ths of the territory.

Madrid July 19th, 1936

From the first moments of the military uprising of July 18, 1936, there was a shuffle of political forces. The PCE and the PSOE were the first to close ranks behind the Republican state and government.

The moment is difficult but not desperate. The government is sure that it has the means to crush this criminal attempt. Should its means be insufficient, the Republic is counting on the solemn promise of the Popular Front. It is ready to intervene in the struggle as soon as its help is called for. The government commands and the Popular Front obeys.

Joint note PSOE-PCE, 19 July 1936

But what was actually happening was of a very different nature. On July 19, workers across the country rose up and directly confronted the putschist forces. The Republican state collapsed in most of “Republican Spain”. The limits imposed by the Popular Front dissolve in front of class pressure like a small sugar cube. The army is defeated in virtually the whole country.

With the Revolution asserting itself, what is left of the state and the bourgeoisie try to gather forces by forming a government around Martínez Barrio, encouraged by the Popular Front, which offers to surrender to the coup leaders.

Since days before, the masses, mobilized spontaneously, on the initiative of the C.N.T., of militant socialist and stalinist milieus, and by other small organizations, were materially masters of the streets in the main cities. Real power had become polarized between the masses and the military barracks. A clash was inevitable. As soon as the constitution of the new government was announced on the radio, an explosion of anger erupted in violent demonstrations, to the cry of Down with Martínez Barrio! The socialist and Stalinist parties themselves had to agree to the desire of the masses, and support, as parties, the demonstrations. Thus, humiliatingly repudiated by the reaction, before whose sword it bowed, fought against and insulted by the masses, the surrendering attempt of Martínez Barrio was drowned in the heart of the popular front that encouraged it. The situation did not allow for compromise. To subdue the overwhelmed masses, the Government needed the same military force that was rebelling against the masses and the Government; to subdue the military it was necessary to arm the masses. (…)

Once the settlement had failed, nothing could prevent the masses from arming themselves and attacking the military. On the contrary, the workers’ parties of the popular front themselves had to run from the tail to the head of the masses, so as not to be dismantled themselves, and so that the weaponry would come under their deleterious control, as far as possible.

G. Munis. Jalones de derrota promesa de victoria, 1948

The working class collectivizes factories and fields and confronts fascism with its militias, the country is filled with committees which take de facto local power and production. But confused by the CNT and the weight of anarchism, absent a political organization of sufficient size and trajectory, the myriad of committees fail to centralize, do not assert class power, and inevitably… the structures of the state discover an unexpected truce from which to reconstitute themselves. Especially from the Generalitat (Catalan Government).

At the same time, the whole of Spain was peppered with committees made up of workers, peasants and militiamen, who exercised political power, executed justice against the reactionaries, expropriated the bourgeoisie, and patrolled streets and highways. Any of these Committees had more real power than the famous Legal Government of the Popular Front (PF). Because there can be no more legality than that sanctioned by historical events. The fallacy of the bourgeois democratic theory supported by the Popular Front was very clear. The historical process -without any conscious factor helping it, we insist- destroyed the bourgeois state, creating simultaneously the very cells of a new proletarian state. The Popular Front was caught in the infamous crime of anti-historical action. And everything that is anti-historical, to a greater or lesser degree, is counter-revolutionary.

On several occasions, the author of this article has described the situation resulting from the July conferences as an atomization of power. It seems to me more suitable, for the situation of Spain, than the well-known duality of powers, inherited from the Russian revolution. This one supposes the existence of two powers that dispute respectively for total power. Something else was happening in Spain. The bourgeois power, in spite of its formal survival, lacked effective power, in spite of what the stalinist and Socialist parties proclaimed to everybody: The Government commands, the Popular Front obeys. This was indeed the case, except that the PF was not obeyed by the masses, not even by most of the members of its own parties. On the other hand, the committees formed by the masses lacked coordination and collective capacity to claim all the power for themselves and take it over. Each Committee was a small government, a tiny workers’ state within its radius of action. The power that the bourgeois PF government lost was distributed unequally among the Committees. From this I deduce that to characterize more exactly the situation in the weeks following July 19, it must be defined as an atomization of power in the hands of the proletariat and the peasants. The peasants were fully aware of their local power, even if they lacked a consciousness of the need to coordinate their power nationally. For its part, during the first weeks, the bourgeois government lacked the capacity and will to fight against the emerging workers’ power. It was not until later, when the PF government came to power, that the government realized that it was alive, regrouped around the armed forces at its disposal and began to contest power with the Committees of the Proletariat and Peasants.

G. Munis. “Historical Significance of 19 July”, 1938

Which role did the PCE play?

Poster of the PCE with José Díaz and Dolores Ibárruri, presenting the army and the bourgeois state with their flag of that time as a proletarian cause.

The PCE, in continuity with the line drawn from Moscow, seeks to defend the republican state not only against fascism, but also against collectivizations. The result is that the PCE, apart from the Soviet aid, becomes the new party of order and multiplies its recruitment among the petty bourgeoisie. As PCE leader Fernando Claudín reports:

Numerous petty bourgeois elements come to the ranks of the PCE, attracted by the party’s reputation as the defender of order, legality and small property. And to the PCE flow above all – or are put under its leadership through the JSI [the socialist youth] – a great contingent of the youth not yet formed in the unions and traditional workers’ organizations.

José Díaz’s report to the Central Committee in May 1937 shows that, compared to the 150,000 salaried workers (which include not only agricultural and industrial workers, but also civil servants and business executives), there are already more than 100,000 small owners (professionals and farmers), along with 20,000 women who have no social affiliation. External witnesses, linked to the PCE at the time, reinforce these data in their testimonies.

The CP is today, in the first place, the party of the administrative and military personnel, in the second place the party of the petty bourgeoisie and certain well-to-do peasant groups, in the third place the party of the civil servants and only in the fourth place the party of the workers.

Frank Burkenau. The Spanish Quarrelsome, 1971.

The sociological analysis of militancy reflects the extent to which popular-front politics and the conception of the party as a transmission belt have managed to attract social sectors whose objective is to save the democratic republican state instead of carrying out the socialist revolution.

What role did the POUM play?

Members of the ICE radius in Llerena moments before they were shot by the army on August 8, 1936

What happened to the newborn POUM in the meantime? The party was born from the fusion of the BOC -Workers and Peasants Bloc- with the ICE, the Spanish Communist Left. When the military uprising took place, its leader Maurín from the BOC was in Galicia, he was captured by the insurgents and was presumed murdered. Only Nin is fit to take over the Secretariat. The cult of personality and the blockist mentality is so ridiculous, so anti-Marxist, that he takes on the “executive secretariat” because the “general secretariat” belongs ad eternum to the – supposedly – dead Maurín.

Unfortunately, civil war broke out before internal welding had been established in the conception of the problems of the two merged organizations. (…) The absence of their leader, Maurín, had created among the former blockers a reflex of preventive defense against the party leaders coming from the ICE, in which they supposed the intention of “taking over the POUM” and “imposing Trotskyism”. Because of this situation, Andrés Nin was a political secretary diminished in his functions, which affected him painfully during the year of civil war that he lived through, and against such state of things in the party I considered that he did not want nor was able to react resolutely.

Juan Andrade. Preface to “The Problems of the Spanish Revolution” by Andrés Nin, 1971.

In Catalonia, the POUM, which had already entered into the Popular Front’s electoral pact in 1936 on the grounds that it was entering into a united front of workers’ parties, was irrevocably placing itself on the other side of the class divide. Nin himself entered the government of the Generalitat during the war, the same government that served as the base structure for the reconstitution of the republican state and the crushing of workers’ autonomy and its collectivizations.

The P.O.U.M., bouncing from the popular front to the opposition and from the opposition to the popular front, lacked its own political line; it hid in the rough shadow of the socialist left, or in the shadow of anarcho-syndicalism, artificially elongated by the automated setting of the capitalist sun. As a result, at the time of the military insurrection, the workers’ organizations were either supporting the capitalist state with all their might, like reformism and stalinism, or were approaching it, like the C.N.T., the F.A.I. and the P.O.U.M. In spite of everything, the capitalist state and society, without anyone deliberately proposing it, fell to the ground, crumbling as a consequence of the workers’ triumph over the reactionary insurrection.

The Marxist theory that proclaims the need to destroy the capitalist state and create a workers’ state based on socialist relations of production and distribution of the producing classes, in possession of the instruments of labor, received the most brilliant demonstration in Spain on July 19. In the Russia of 1917, the double social process of destruction of the old state and creation of the new one was consciously and powerfully aided by the Bolshevik Party. But in Spain the same process was consummated not only without the help of any organization, but with deliberately adverse help from reformism and stalinism, unconsciously adverse, although to a lesser degree, from anarcho-syndicalism and poumist centrism. The proof is of unimpeachable and instructive value to the world proletariat. The bourgeois state emerged strengthened in the places where the military triumphed, or was totally destroyed in the places where the proletariat triumphed and rudimentarily created the basic organisms of a new proletarian state. By consequence, the fact constitutes an accusation of criminality for the workers parties imbued with the formula: neither social revolution nor fascism, but bourgeois democracy. Because if it had represented, even a little, a real need of the historical evolution, the defeat of the military on July 19th would have confirmed it, spontaneously invigorating parliamentarianism, the popular front, and in general all the institutions of the bourgeois state. The ghostly life to which all of them were suddenly reduced shows the anti-historical, reactionary character of that formula, and as a consequence also of the workers’ parties which made it their own.

Anarchism and poumism, although they did not cease to be in harmony with the popular front, appeared to the left of it, thus finding themselves in excellent conditions to assure the workers’ governing committees full possession of political power. On its own, the numerous and excellent anarchist militancy would have easily guaranteed success, if its spontaneous activity towards the creation of a new State had not been curbed and diverted towards the bourgeois State by the anarchist leadership itself. For its part, the P.O.U.M., although incomparably less influential, had sufficient resources and numerical strength to conquer the proletarian majority by means of a vigorous revolutionary policy, and to thwart the baleful intention of stalinists and reformists. But it has already been seen that since the constitution of the popular front, only the Kerenskys were visible in the workers’ organizations; the Lenins and the Trotskys were missing. At the moment in which the popular front, with the bourgeois State, received a mortal blow, when, by dominating all the social relations, the treacherous influence of Stalinism and reformism could be quickly uprooted, anarchism and poumism joined them, agreed to their reactionary maneuvers, gave them viability, cut off the workers’ government committees from coming to power on a national scale, and saved the bourgeois state from the coup de grâce. It is the intertwining of two deliberately pro-capitalist tendencies, and two other semi-revolutionary ones, that prevented July’s work from crystallizing and consolidating, and which later caused the retreat of the revolution and the triumph of Franco.

G. Munis. Jalones de derrota promesa de victoria, 1948

The counterrevolution

Leaflet distributed during the fighting in May 1937 by the Bolshevik-Leninist Group

On July 19, the proletariat destroys the power of the bourgeoisie; as class power fails to be centralized, the state begins to reorganize and concentrate its few remaining forces. It is then and until the May Days, that a double power exists. The republican state and the working class – organized in a thousand committees and militias – would exercise it temporarily while the workers had not yet found a revolutionary leadership.

The balance between classes would finish in May 37, when the republican state and the PCE would feel strong enough to take power again alone, destroying completely the autonomous expressions of the class, starting with the militias and the workers’ control.

Precisely when the revolution reached its pinnacle in Spain, in 1936, the stalinist counterrevolution consolidated in Russia its power for many years, through the extermination of millions of men. As a consequence, its Spanish branch deliberately behaved, from July 19th, as a standard-bearer of the counter-revolution, underhanded at first, shameless from May 1937. With all premeditation and by strict orders from Moscow, it pounced on a proletariat that had just annihilated capitalism. That fact, attested by thousands of stalinist documents of the time, represents a definitive reactionary mutation of foreign stalinism, in line with the previous mutation of its matrix, Russian stalinism.

A conditioned reflection of the different pieces of the Fourth International and of others that look at it with disdain, assigns to stalinism an opportunist and reformist role, of class collaboration, comparable with Kerensky’s or Noske’s. This is a serious mistake, because what stalinism did was to politically lead the counterrevolution, and to implement it with its own weapons, its own henchmen and its own uniformed and secret police. It immediately stood out as the far-right reactionary party in the red zone, indispensable to annihilate the revolution. As in Russia, and long before it would do the same in Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, etc., the so-called Communist Party acted as the owner of capital, monopolized by one of its states. It is impossible to imagine politics that are more fundamentally anti-communist. Far from collaborating with the bourgeois Republican parties or with the Socialist Party, which still had a reformist bias, it was the latter that collaborated with it and soon appeared on its left, as traditional democrats. Both were astonished and amazed at the anti-revolutionary expertise of a party that they still considered to be communist. But they conceded, for with their own wits they wavered in the face of the huge flood of workers.

G. Munis. “Reaffirmation”, 1977

In other words, Stalinism was already the spearhead of the counter-revolution itself and as such the working class had gone from defending itself with the weapons of the Opposition’s critique, in few circles and minority organizations; to exercising the critique of weapons. When the Spanish proletariat, rifle in hand, defends its Revolution against stalinism, something very profound has changed.