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Spanish revolution and workers’ committees

Sunday 9 August 2009

Hans David Freund

Dual Power in the Spanish Revolution

The Question of the Committees

Ever since the beginning of the revolution, the proletariat, lacking a revolutionary leadership, has not ceased to fall back upon the bourgeoisie. The Central Committee of the Militias as a sub-committee of the Generalitat (the end of July), the Economic Council of ‘containment’, in other words channelling and breaking up the initiative of the masses (mid-August), a government of sacred union with the CNT and POUM (mid-September), and governments with full powers to liquidate the revolution (mid-December): such are the stages of the counter-revolution as they express themselves in representative organisations.

This has been a successive evolution in a direction opposite to that of the leading organisations of the French Revolution, from the States General up to the Convention.1 This comparison also shows the more democratic character of the French Revolution: the Spanish proletariat, which did not know how to provide itself with a party of class dictatorship, has up to now also been incapable of providing itself with a representative organisation on a democratic basis. The authority of the trade unions, and the revolutionary inclinations of the Anarchist centre, had let it be known that that democratic foundation, which was Soviets in Russia and elsewhere, was at the same time impossible and superfluous. The trade union unification that is being prepared is perhaps going to reinforce this opinion even more in the mind of many a militant. Is the Workers’ Alliance,2 in the mind of a great many, in reality anything more than the coordination of the two trade union centres? And are not the political parties, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party, at the same time marching towards unification, with the POUM itself begging for unification with them? Isn’t the Alliance of the Youth3 in the process of being realised?

In reality — and there are more and more comrades who are seeing this reality — the intensification of these discussions about unification is proportional with the extent to which the proletariat is drawing back from power, and the bourgeoisie is preparing a fresh triumph, unthinkable only a few months ago.

Under the sign of ‘anti-Fascist unity’ the CNT-Taradellas-Nin government has dissolved the local committees of the militias, and re-etablished the military code of the monarchy.

Under the sign of trade union unity, the specific weight of the trade union bureaucracy moving towards corporatism has been reinforced, and is preparing to halt and reverse the movement of the proletariat and small peasantry for economic and political emancipation.

Under the sign of unity, the Committee for the Coordination of the United Youth (Stalinists) and the Libertarian Youth are tying down the revolutionary tendencies, particularly among the latter, not to mention the slogan of the National Alliance of the Spanish Youth of which we shall speak in another context.

In the same way, inasmuch as it does not remain on paper, in present political circumstances, a single command in the army means the subordination of the proletariat to the liberal bourgeoisie, the stagnation of military operations, and the preparation of a shameful armistice.

‘Anti-Fascist Unity’ reveals itself as anti-Communist and anti-revolutionary unity. The problem of the unity of the proletariat remains posed, more strongly and more urgently than ever.

The Workers’ Alliances

In October 1934 the Workers’ Alliances represented to a certain extent the democratic and effective union of the proletarian forces. They owed their existence first of all to the agitation of the Bolshevik-Leninists, to which was added in Catalonia Maurín’s Workers and Peasants Bloc. But the Catalan Anarchists refused to take part, and the Socialists refused to recognise the Workers’ Alliances as organisations of proletarian power. The sectarianism of the organisations more often made them into organisations of local liaison than into soviets.

The double weakness of the Workers’ Alliances was that they simultaneously lacked a central national leadership and failed to be organisations of the United Front at the base. The theory according to which the United Front in Spain must be realised neither at the top nor at the base, but ‘locally’ is obviously absurd. Because of the ascendancy of the bureaucracy in many places, the existence of the Workers’ Alliances remained purely nominal and fictional. Elsewhere they were dominated by the Socialists, who refused to place their weaponry at their disposal.4 As we know, the Stalinists termed the Workers’ Alliances (which in spite of their weaknesses constituted the highest organs of struggle that the Spanish proletariat had been able to create up until that time) ‘holy alliances of counter-revolution’, only finally to enter them a few days before the insurrection of October 1934. The history of this demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of the Workers’ Alliances.

In May 1936, at the Congress of Saragossa, the CNT voted for a resolution recommending the Workers’ Alliances, but this was only the bureaucratic deformation of the project of the left minority, which had demanded unity in action at the base, or at least in the ‘middle’, but lacking a firm ideology, gave in to the Congress. The entry of the CNT into the counter-revolutionary Madrid government was accomplished thanks to this evolution of the Workers’ Alliances, and the bureaucratic unification of the two trade union centres will take place under the same auspices.

The July Revolution

The July Revolution, a tardily prepared response to the Fascist coup, caused committees of every type to spring up. Local committees came to replace the bourgeois municipalities; moreover, to secure the executive and judicial functions, etc, of the state, at the same time the revolution democratised and decentralised its functions to the limit, and dismantled the repressive arms of the state.

The Central Committee of the Militias in Barcelona was the expression on the one hand of the victory of the anti-Fascist insurrection, and on the other of the continued existence of the structure of the bourgeois state. There were ‘absences of bourgeois legality’, but not its pure and simple abolition. The dual power regime (proletariat and bourgeoisie) established by the July Days expressed itself in the course of the first few weeks in the collaboration of the petit-bourgeoisie with the proletariat.

But the nature of this collaboration was reversed in proportion to the extent to which the profoundly shaken foundations of the bourgeois state recovered; the one which ‘collaborated’ was no longer the bourgeoisie, but the proletariat. Some days after the formation of the September government, the Central Committee of the Militias dissolved itself: from then on the system of dual power expressed itself in the coexistence of the bourgeois government and of the many committees, both of them entering into a more or less sharp phase of struggle, in which the leadership of the parties (including the POUM) and of the unions (including the CNT-FAI) in effect took the side of the reactionary bourgeoisie.

After the dissolution of the local militia committees, the following committees remained:

1. Committees in the police barracks, etc. These committees formed a very relative, insufficient guarantee against the use of the armed force of the bourgeois state against the working class.

2. Committees in the ‘collectivised’ industries. These committees suffered from scarcity and bureaucratic nepotism, as well as the workers’ incapacity to manage the economy without an intermediary period of education (workers’ control). In the absence of a renewed upsurge of the revolutionary wave, their inactivity and incompetence led to their being swept aside by reaction.

3. Committees of workers’ control. These committees exist in the most important firms that have generally not been collectivised. Trade union control of the banks is practically nil; likewise for small trade.

4. House committees in Madrid. These committees suffered from the same bureaucratic tendencies, but carried on the tasks of repression, vigilance, medical aid, etc. They were centralised by a system of delegation by districts, etc.

5. Local committees, continuing mainly in Aragon, the Levante,5 etc.

6. Militia committees, existing on different fronts (Sierra, Aragon, etc).

7. Peasant committees, existing in many places for the collectivisation of production, commerce and supply. In conflict with the state and the trade union bureaucracy.

The main weakness of all these committees is that they lacked a revolutionary party which could give their best elements a sound ideological grounding. Anarchism dominated the greater part of them in Catalonia and the Levante. Hence, without understanding the question of the state, these committees were bound to be destroyed by it. The Anarchists, who agreed to collaborate within the bourgeois state, themselves always refused to coordinate the committees on a regional basis: they became authoritarian without becoming democratic.

Today they would make the workers believe that the period of the class struggle — which they never previously admitted — has ended with the boss being liquidated, seeing that he has now accepted responsibility in the committees or the factory on a salary equal to that of the workers. Now today, more than ever, the main preoccupation of the working class is not economic, but political. Or rather, economic problems can only find their solution, more than ever, in the political struggle.

The POUM itself has never understood that the problem of the committees, of keeping them at all costs, and of transforming them into truly democratic organisations of advanced struggle, constitutes the central problem of the revolution. It has, moreover, added its signature to the decree calling for the dissolution of the local militia committees. It has offered the reactionary government of the Generalitat its collaboration, whilst in an abstract way and with many reservations calling for the formation of an assembly of the committees. To bring together such an assembly it is first necessary to reform the committees, creating better ones out of them wherever the masses are struggling for their conditions of life. But the POUM is incapable of proceeding in this direction in a systematic and consistent fashion.6 The slightest threat of reaction causes it to draw back. The slightest possibility for collaboration makes it abandon its reserve arsenal of Leninist slogans.

‘Long live the strong state! Down with the committees!’ cries the reaction. ‘Down with the state, long live the committees, rejuvenated, politicised, democratised, strengthened and broadened for all the functions of public life as instruments for the seizure of power by the proletariat!’ — that is the slogan of the revolutionaries.

January 1937



1. The French Revolution of 1789 began by the aristocracy forcing the king to convene the States General, which contained all of the three orders in France (nobility, clergy and Third Estate). As it gathered momentum and entered into its radical phase this body was replaced by the revolutionary Convention, dominated by the Jacobins.

2. The Alianza Obrera (Workers’ Alliance) had been the main slogan of the Trotskyists and the Bloque since the Asturian uprising of October 1934.

3. The Socialist Party and the Communist Party, along with other groups, combined in Catalonia in 1936 to form the Stalinist PSUC. Unity in the rest of Spain was prevented by the opposition of the mass left wing of the Socialist Party, led by Largo Caballero. But the leaders of the Socialist Party Youth deserted to set up a ‘united’ organisation with the Communist Party’s youth, which then became an appendage of Stalinism.

4. Julián Bestiero and other right wing Socialist Party leaders had denounced the workers’ resort to arms in the Asturian uprising of 1934. It was as a result isolated and crushed by Franco’s troops with great brutality.

5. The Levante is the area around Valencia on the eastern coast.

6. Moreover, the POUM has launched the slogan of an assembly of the committees allied to the Constituent Assembly. But the formation of a constitution is only a secondary requirement among all the tasks to be fulfilled by the future central representative organisation of the proletariat. [Author’s note]

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