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Fascism and Popular Front The Politics of Retreat, 1930–1938


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Fascism and

Popular Front

The Politics of Retreat,



Until   the   last   minute,   unity   was   overshadowed   by   fierce   Socialist- Communist  animosities.  The  PCF  sternly  applied  the  Comintern’s  1928 line, denouncing the SFIO not only as a tool of the bourgeoisie but as “an instrument of the capitalist attack against the working class.” “Social Fas- cism” obliterated distinctions between fascism and other “bourgeois” pol- itics, indicting socialists precisely for defending liberal institutions and fos- tering  reformist  illusions,  diverting  workers  from  the  revolutionary  path. Unfortunately, such slogans conveyed the PCF’s experience of the system. In 1928, the party’s million first-ballot votes brought only 14 parliamentary seats,  while  the  same  support  for  the  right-wing  Union  Re´publicaine De´- mocratique brought 142! Preventive arrest was used routinely against Com- munists, and the PCF’s 1929 Congress was surrounded by police. Socialists ceded nothing to Communists in enmity. Le Populaire declared: “We shall never ask anything from the Bolsheviks, we’ll kick their teeth in.”7

Moves  toward  unity  in  France  took  a  double  track.  First,  party  lead- erships buried the hatchet. On 27 July 1934, a unity pact was signed, fol- lowed by a joint memorial for the assassination of Jean Jaure`s—nicely sym- bolizing  the  mixture  of  history,  solidarity,  and  patriotic  countermemory identifying  the  Popular  Front.  These  events  were  carefully  watched  else- where,  and  a  month  later  PSI  and  PCI  also  signed  a  pact.  Reviving  the United Front was a badly needed boost to left-wing morale. Between De- cember 1933 and August 1934, initiatives occurred in Catalonia, Asturias, the Saarland, Austria, and Belgium, plus many localized actions. In Spain, independent  socialists  set  the  pace.  Local  Communists  were  pulled  along too, but the Comintern still dragged its feet.

This was the second track. Comintern endorsement was needed for na- tional pacts of Socialists and Communists to stick. The domestic preoccu- pations  of  Soviet  leaders  in  1930–35  made  enough  room  for  allies  of  a United Front to maneuver, but the vital impetus was the fascist threat. The Nazi  seizure  of  power,  and  right-wing  violence  in  France  and  elsewhere, impelled the first United Front initiatives in 1933–34, reopening debate in ECCI for the first time since 1928. Georgii Dimitrov moved the Comintern toward antifascism, backed by Dmitri Manuilski and Comintern’s man in the PCF, Evzhen Fried (“Cle´ment”).8   On 28 May 1934, Pravda endorsed an  SFIO-PCF  pact.  The  German,  Hungarian,  and  Bulgarian  CPs  still

balked, but the French, Italian, Czechoslovak, and Polish parties were now on board. From June 1934, “United Front from Above” became the official Third International line.

In  the  Labor  and  Socialist  International  (LSI),  the  Comintern’s  social democratic  rival,  resistance  to  unity  was  more  entrenched,  so  while  the Third  International  was  emerging  from  its  bunker,  the  Second  continued digging itself in. Alignments in the LSI Executive repeated the battle lines of  1917–23,  when  an  anti-Communist  northern  bloc  had  squelched  left- socialist efforts led by the SPO¨  to keep lines open.9  After an LSI Emergency Conference  rebuffed  Comintern  overtures  in  August  1933,  the  Austrian, French,  Italian,  Spanish,  and  Swiss  socialist  parties  joined  the  Menshevik and  Polish  sections  in  a  left-wing  “Group  of  Seven,”  and  the  divisions paralyzed social democracy internationally. Despite informal contacts from Comintern in autumn 1934, LSI still refused talks.10

Comintern  sought  alliances  elsewhere,  shifting  from  the  United  to  the broader  Popular  Front  in  May  and  June  1935.11   French  Communist  lan- guage shifted dramatically from the class struggle to “people” and “nation” instead. Extraparliamentary mobilization of the masses gave way to insti- tutional vocabularies of parliament and constitution. In Spain, the PCE also moved officially from sectarianism to support for United Fronts, appealing to  socialists,  anarchists,  republicans,  nationalists;  everyone  in  one  bloc facing the fascist bloc of the various monarcho-fascist parties of the bour- geoisie.”12   On  20  May  1935  the  PCE’s  pact  with  the  Republican  parties was signed.

Any doubts about Stalin’s support were removed by the Franco-Soviet defensive treaty of 2 May 1935, with an accompanying Moscow Declara- tion  on  the  two  countries’  needs  for  strong  armies.  Acknowledging  the legitimate security needs of an imperialist power was a hard pill for a party like the  PCF  to  swallow. But Thorez could now wear the Jacobin mantle of  1792,  and  embracing  national  defense  helped  the  Communists’  credi- bility as coalition partners. Defense of the Soviet Union was de facto sub- stituting  for  the  world  revolution.  But  the  debacle  of  the  Third  Period’s sectarianism after 1928 lent this more modest strategy greater appeal.

All this set the scene for the Third International’s Seventh Congress in Moscow,  on  25  July  1935.  The  ritualized  triumphalism  of  the  occasion couldn’t disguise realities of loss and retreat. Dimitrov delivered the main address,  presenting  ECCI’s  freshly  minted  definition  of  fascism—as  “the open,  terrorist  dictatorship  of  the  most  reactionary,  most  chauvinist, and most  imperialist  elements  of  finance  capital.”13   This  badly  misrecognized Nazism, which was never an instrument of big business or the straightfor- ward vehicle of capitalist interests in that way. But by contrasting the pro- fascist parts of the dominant classes with the democratic ones, it created a basis for antifascist  alliance with the latter. By contrasting fascist regimes with  bourgeois  states  respecting  democracy,  an  opposition rejected at the Sixth Congress in 1928, Dimitrov embraced “bourgeois democratic” free-

doms per se as something worth defending in their own right, as a source of lasting political good.

In  a  time of  retreat, the Left should not only emphasize working-class unity for defending democratic rights, Dimitrov argued, but embrace other social groups interested in democracy too, including parts of the dominant classes.  It  should  work  with  nonsocialists—liberals, radicals, and republi- cans;  peace  movements;  humanitarian  organizations;  where  possible  the churches; even conservative groups willing to defend democracy. It should support bourgeois governments upholding democratic rights, especially in the interests of international antifascist coalitions, both for containing Nazi Germany  and  Fascist  Italy  and  for  removing  the  Soviet  Union’s isolation. In  short,  the  politics  of  the  revolutionary  Left  underwent  a  major  post-

1917 reorientation.

This was the People’s Front. It was a defensive regroupment—for raising obstacles to fascism’s spread and encouraging resistance where it had won. It  was  meant  to  overcome  CP  isolation  by  finding  the  Left’s  common ground. But building the broadest cooperation required democratic rather than   socialist   principles,   because   working-class   parties   by   themselves weren’t strong enough to win. Furthermore, if the Left managed to establish its democratic credentials, coalitions might pass beyond existing democracy to the groundwork of socialist transition. The Popular Front strategy had this  other,  ulterior  dimension:  it  “was  more  than  a  temporary  defensive tactic, or even a strategy for eventually turning defeat into offensive. It was also a carefully considered strategy of advancing to socialism.”14

This  Popular  Front  strategy  contained  some  vital  recognitions.  It  was the first revision of the revolutionary optimism driving Communism since the foundation years of 1919–21 and the first questioning of the Bolshevik model  from  the  inside.  Communists  began  withdrawing  from  their  van- guard  claims:  they  were  not  the  workers’  sole  legitimate  voice,  and  their working-class  support  was  not  guaranteed  but  shared  with  others.  Nor could  a  country’s  working  class  achieve  victory  by  itself.  It  needed social allies,  whether  peasants,  white-collar  and  professional  groups,  or  intelli- gentsia, or even the small business class. The more complex the society, the more  essential  alliances  became.  Only  exceptionally  could  CPs  entertain seizing power alone. Above all, their sectarian isolation needed to be over- come.

In  contrast to the short-term and instrumental strategies of the 1920s, this was a new departure. Alliances had to be principled, because alliances to deceive one’s partners (supporting them as the rope supports a hanging man,  in  Lenin’s  notorious  image)  were  self-defeating.  To  achieve  them, Communists should even be willing to relinquish their “leading” role and take  a  junior  place.  As  the  Popular  Front  strategy  evolved,  it  envisaged concentric  circles  of  cooperation:  United  Fronts  of  workers  for  elections, general strikes, and other mass actions to heal the splits of 1914–21; anti- fascist  “People’s  Fronts”  embracing  nonsocialists  to  resist  foreign  aggres-

sion from Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan; and an international front of gov- ernments against fascism and war.

Democracy  became  the  unifying  theme  of  this  approach.  Internation- alism  was  still  upheld,  but  democratic  patriotism  replaced  the  purism reigning  since  Lenin’s  extreme  Zimmerwaldism  of  1915–16.  This  meant speaking the language of national democracy, in the syntax of what Gram- sci   called   the   “national-popular,”   drawing   on   a   country’s   distinctive traditions—the radical Leveller and Chartist versions of parliamentary de- mocracy   in   Britain,   Jacobinism   in   France,   democratic   traditions   of Risorgimento in Italy. As Thorez said: “We will not abandon to our ene- mies the tricoleur, the flag of the great French Revolution, or the Marseil- laise,  the  song  of  the  soldiers  of  the  Convention.”  The  CPs  now  claimed the mantle of a nation’s best democratic traditions.15

Popular Frontism recast socialism as the highest form of older progres- sive traditons rather than their implacable opponent, and this affirming of universal  humanist  values  also implied  a  different politics for culture and the arts. In marking the distance from “bourgeois” culture, the Third Pe- riod’s sectarian isolation had forced Communists into greater inventiveness, embracing agitprop, a formalistic left modernism, and the avant-garde. In contrast,  Popular  Fronts  now  resutured  the  Left’s  cultural imagination to the progressive bourgeois heritage, rallying it to the antifascist banner. Anti- fascist  appeals  were  directed  especially  toward  intellectuals  in  literature, theater, and the arts, as well as popular arts like film.16

The Popular Front was a huge departure, produced by the scale of the fascist  threat.  For  Otto  Bauer,  for  example,  fascism  was  an  ultraright at- tempt  to  burst  the  fetters  of  1918–19,  because  the  costs  of  democracy, typified by the welfare state and union rights, exceeded what the needs of capitalist  restabilization  and  political  order  could  bear.  While  capitalism had tottered in 1918, the Left had failed to realize its revolutionary advan- tage,  and  “a  temporary  equilibrium”  of  class  capacities  ensued.  Initially, Bauer had seen this transitional equilibrium optimistically, stressing the po- tential for socialism’s future gains. But by the end of the 1930s, he saw the scope for fascist counterrevolution instead. It was not a revolutionary crisis that provoked the rise of fascism, in Bauer’s view, but the Right’s desire to sweep away the democratic gains in the republican system. Nazism fed not on Communism per se but on hatred of the Weimar Republic’s freedoms:

“The turn to fascism is provoked less by capitalist fear of revolution than by a determination to depress wages, to destroy the social reforms achieved by the working class, and to smash the positions of political power held by its  representatives;  not  to  suppress  a  revolutionary  situation  but  to  wipe out the gains of reformist socialism.”17

If,  contrary  to  the  Third  Period’s  maximalism,  Europe  wasn’t  on  the verge  of  revolution  during  the  Great  Depression  but  direly  vulnerable  to fascism’s counterrevolutionary assault, then the Left’s priorities shifted ac- cordingly.  The  Comintern’s  new  leadership  edged  toward  this  view  in

1932–34. And while ultraleft proclivities survived in parts of the Comintern

(some Communists believed nothing had changed; that the Popular Front was  simply  a  short-term  expedient),  the more “democratic” view implied reevaluating  revolution  in  the  capitalist  West.  This  went  furthest  in  the PCI—via  Gramsci’s  influence  and  the  strategizing  of  Togliatti,  Gramsci’s legatee.  For  Gramsci  and  others,  something  had  fundamentally  changed. Their thinking was

based on the assumption that the lost opportunity of 1917–20 would not recur, and that Communist Parties must envisage not a short front offensive but a lengthy war of position—a policy of the long haul. In effect, they must win the leadership of a broad alliance of social

forces, and maintain this leadership during a prolonged period of tran- sition, in which the actual transfer of power was only one episode.18

This was now the revolutionary Left’s main division. On one side was the  classic  insurrectionist  approach:  a  mass  uprising  of  the  oppressed; vi- olent  destruction  of  the  state;  confrontation  with  the  dominant classes to uproot  the  bases  of  their  power;  retribution  and  reprisals  against the  old order; extreme vigilance for the security of the revolution. This originated in   the   French   Revolution’s   Jacobin   phase,   continuing   through   the nineteenth-century insurrectionary tradition of Buonarotti and Blanqui. Un- der the Second International, it survived where parties faced illegality and police  repression,  as  in  Russia,  resurfacing  in  the  Bolshevik  seizure  of power.19   On  the  other  side  was  gradualism.  This  stressed  not  the  revolu- tionary climacteric but a different set of modalities: building popular sup- port slowly over a long term, drawing progressive aspirations from all parts of  society,  commanding  ever  greater  public  influence  via  existing  institu- tions, building the working-class movement’s moral authority into the dem- ocratic  foundations  of  the  transition.  This  approach  redirected  attention from  armed  struggle  and  pitched  confrontations  to  changing  the  system from within by incremental advance.

The  democratic  quality  of  the  restructuring  was  crucial.  The  Left  was to  build  the  new  society  in  the  frame  of  the  old,  both  prefiguratively  by exemplary  institutions  and  behaviors  in  the  working-class movement and legislatively by reforms. This more gradualist perspective was built on some key  recognitions:  the  lower-than-expected  electoral  ceiling  of  support  for socialism  (rarely  more  than  40  percent  of  the  vote  at  best,  usually  much lower); the necessity of coalitions with nonsocialist forces; the inevitability of  periods  of  moderation,  defensive  consolidation,  and  slow  advance. Above all, confrontational violence, intolerance, and coercion isolated the Left from the rest of society. Breadth of consensus was essential to socialist success.

By  its  gradualism,  this  second  perspective  confused  the  differences opened  by  the  splits  of  1917–21—between  Communism  and  social  de-

mocracy.  The  Gramscian” understanding of Popular Front converged in many ways with the left-socialist strands of the Second International. There was also much congruence with reformist socialism since 1917, both in the foregrounding of democracy and in the gradualist stress on existing insti- tutions. A third convergence occurred with a new radical liberalism, most developed  in  Italy  in  the  ideas  of  Piero  Gobetti  and  Carlo  Rosselli,  who opened liberal thinking to the permanence of conflict and an ethics of civic activism.20  It was unclear where the boundaries were now drawn.


The  French  Popular  Front  took  off  when  the  Radicals  joined  the  mass meeting of PCF and SFIO on Bastille Day in 1935. Moved by distaste for Pierre  Laval’s  right-wing  government  of  June  1935,  with  its  deflationary social  agenda  and  profascist foreign  policy, and by  fear of the right-wing Leagues, the Radicals realigned with the Left. The tripartite coalition was sealed in the Popular Front Program of 11 January 1936. The Left mobi- lized for another huge demonstration of over half a million when the SFIO leader Le´on Blum was almost lynched by the Action Francaise on 13 Feb- ruary 1936 and the momentum built impressively toward the elections of May 1936, which brought the Popular Front a decisive majority, with the balance  shifting  markedly  from  the  Radicals  to  the  SFIO  and  PCF.21   The new government took office in June 1936 under Blum, with the PCF sup- porting from outside the cabinet. The masses gave spectacular acclaim on

24 May, when six hundred thousand marched to commemorate the dead of the Paris Commune.22

The twin coordinates of this Left resurgence, antifascism and economic distress, were immediately visible. On 11 May 1936, a week after the elec- tion, in the hiatus before the new government, the previously nonmilitant workers of the Bre´guet aircraft works in Le Havre occupied their factory, secured immediate victory via the arbitration of the local mayor, and then flocked  into  the  CGT,  thereby  triggering  a  massive  strike  wave.  By  June, two million workers had downed tools, complementing the Popular Front with a general strike.23

The strikes were remarkable in form. Three-quarters of them were fac- tory occupations, challenging employers’ prerogatives and evoking the Eu- ropean  direct-action  insurgencies  of  1917–21.  Not  planned  by  unions  or politically organized militants, the strikes were a spontaneous response to the labor movement’s entry into government, which reversed the European trend of fascist success and left-wing defeat. The mood of popular empow- erment was palpable. This was an explosion of popular desire, composing scenes of extraordinary visual power. In the Paris suburbs, “building after building—small  factories  and  large  factories,  even  comparatively  small

workshops—were  flying  red,  or  red  and  tricoleur  flags—with  pickets  in front of the closed gates.”24  The joy was licensed by political expectation. On 7 June 1936, the employers met with the CGT in the Hoˆ tel Matig- non,  and  made  remarkable  concessions.25   The  Matignon  Agreement hon- ored union rights and recognized the CGT, with collective agreements in- dustry by industry, wage increases of 7–15 percent favoring the lowest paid, and elected works committees in factories of over 10 people. Blum attached a  political  rider,  promising  collective  bargaining,  the  40-hour  week,  and two weeks paid vacation. This was an extraordinary victory for labor, rem- iniscent  of  European trade unionism’s dramatic gains of  1918–19. In one fell  swoop,  it  gave  the  CGT leadership national corporative influence, in- stituted shopfloor representation, and committed a Left government to so- cial  reform.  It  was  a  moment  of  rare  decisiveness  by  a  newly  elected  so-

cialist government. For once, the Left seemed ready to act.

There were three dimensions to the departure. First, it was trade union- ism’s  historic  breakthrough  in  France.  The  40-hour  week  was  one  long- standing central demand. The CGT also gained a legitimate national voice. In one year, CGT membership scaled unprecedented heights, from around

778,000  when the strikes began to almost 4 million in March 1937. Sec- ond, the government showed an impressive political will—not only banning the  right-wing  Leagues  (where  the  SPD  had  tolerated  them,  for  instance) but also acting immediately on its program. It passed 133 new laws in only

73  days,  including  partial  nationalization  of  the  Bank  of  France,  nation- alization of arms industries, public works, creation of the Wheat Marketing Board,  and  raising  the  school  leaving  age  to  14.  Third,  the  Left  invaded the  public  sphere.  The  exuberant  theatricality  of  the  factory  occupations pervaded  the  atmosphere.  The  rally  of  14  July  1936  mobilized  a  million people  for  the  most  spectacular pageant of the  streets; new paid holidays brought workers into the countryside and onto the beaches, disrupting es- tablished  topographies  of  social  privilege.  In  year  one,  six  hundred  thou- sand  people  benefited  from  the  people’s  annual  holiday  ticket  that  was introduced by the Socialist minister responsible for sports and leisure, Le´o Lagrange.26

From this peak, however, came rapid descent. The Popular Front’s pro- gram  was  a  wager  on  consumption:  it  sought  to  reflate  the  economy  via increased purchasing power and the social legislation’s stimulus to produc- tivity. Capital went on strike. Between April and September 1936, the Bank of France gold reserves dropped from 63 to 54 billion francs, with another

1.5 billion fleeing the country during 4–16 September. Blum reneged on a central  commitment  by  devaluing  the  currency.  Production  also  failed  to respond. By October, Blum demanded a change of pace, and his New Year message  sacrificed  further  reforms  to  social  “reconciliation.”27   The  fiscal policies  of  March  1937  reverted  to  extreme  conservatism,  cutting  public spending and abandoning the promises on pensions, unemployment bene- fits, indexing of wages, and public works. Blum became isolated in his own

governing coalition. The PCF criticized from the left, the Radicals broke to the right. On 22 June 1937, Radical defections in the Senate denied Blum the powers for the new  fiscal emergency, and he resigned. There were no protests in the streets.

What explained this plummeting from the proud heights of June 1936? The PCF was the Popular Front’s true beneficiary, as it passed from margins to   mainstream,   raising   its   membership   from   40,000   (1934)   to   some

330,000 (1937). It straddled both worlds of the movement, with one foot in the legislature and one in the streets. It held Blum to the common pro- gram, while shaping popular militancy into disciplined support. While the PCF deployed its militants in the factories and recruited strikers, it sought to leash militancy as much as driving it on. In the bright glow of the gov- ernment’s  inception,  this  strategy  could  work.  Restraint,  respect  for  pro- cedures, high productivity for the national economy, discipline, unity—all were needed for the government’s success. But workers would buy the rhet- oric if gains ensued. Given Blum’s retrenchment after September 1936, these abruptly ceased.28

After Blum’s resignation, things fell apart. Dramatic strikes occurred in December  1937,  with  a  huge  battle  at  the  Goodrich  tire  factory  and  a public  services  strike  in  the  Seine  region.  In  March–April  1938,  150,000

Paris  metalworkers  came  out.  In  November  1938  wildcat  strikes  against increasing the 40-hour week climaxed in an abortive general strike on 30

November.  The  problem  had  already  been  dramatized  at  Clichy  on  16

March  1937:  the  Communist  council  and  Socialist  deputy  called  a  coun- terrally  against  a  fascist  meeting  the  government  had  refused  to  ban;  the police  fired  on  the  Left,  with  five  deaths  and  several  hundred  wounded; and the gap between the government and its working-class supporters was exposed.

The post-Matignon political logic was depressingly familiar.29  It recalled the  SPD’s  situation  in  Germany  after November 1918: early strength cre- ated by an extraparliamentary movement, temporary collapse of the dom- inant classes, and initial decisiveness in the legislative arena; compromises and deals with the forces of order; the alienation of a disappointed but still mobilized  rank  and  file;  and  finally  the  loss  of  government  power  amid demoralization, repression, bitter recriminations, and a deep political split. In retrospect, this logic was inscribed in SFIO attitudes from the start. Amid the strike wave, the new minister of the interior, Roger Salengro (driven to suicide by right-wing vilification later that year), a key architect of Matig- non and the reforms, declared; “For my part I’ve made my choice between order  and  anarchy.  I  will  maintain  order  in  the  face  of  all  opposition.”30

The wonder was that Blum ever began. After the panic of May–June 1936, the dominant classes also recovered their nerve, subjecting the government to  ever-tightening  constraint,  in  an  unstoppable  logic  of  disablement,  for which the Radicals became the unfailing barometer.31


How might this have been avoided? The Blum government had two sources of  momentum:  its  party-political  breadth  and  its  popular  support.  Both gave  the  Left  unparalleled  inclusiveness,  stretching  its  legitimacy  past  the previous  boundaries  of  socialist  strength.  But  if  one  key  to  the  Popular Front’s initial  momentum was its temporary ownership of patriotism, an- other  was  its  equally  fleeting  political  resolve.  Far  from  dissipating  post- elections, the Popular Front’s impetus grew—through immediate introduc- tion   of   popular   reforms,   domination   of   public   space   (the   massive demonstrations and their iconography), social breadth of the rhetoric, ap- peals  to  history,  and  the  bid  for  leadership  of  the  nation-in-general. This situation needed leaders of vision who commanded the necessary political will—capitalizing on the opening of June 1936, feeding the sense of historic opportunity, driving the advantage home against the dominant classes, and finding the broadest unity in the PCF’s sense.

The Spanish Civil War—beginning with the nationalist uprising of 17–

18 July 1936 against the Spanish Popular Front government formed from the elections of 15 February—was the test. The electoral victory of Popular Fronts in two large and contiguous countries was a golden chance for cross- national  solidarity.  Indeed,  the  polarized  rhetoric  of  the  1936  elections marked the new Spanish government as a bulwark against fascism’s further advance. The military rebellion produced an outpouring of emotional sol- idarity from what survived of democratic Europe. Aid for Spain seemed an obvious priority for the Blum government to pursue.

However,  rather  than  honoring  the  Republic’s  military  contracts with Spain, Blum caved in to pressure from the French Foreign Office, the British government,  the  Radicals  in  his  own  administration,  and  the  right-wing press   and   suspended   military   aid,   substituting   an   international  Non- Intervention Agreement to block Italian and German aid for the nationalist rebels instead. This was a catastrophe for the Spanish Republic. But it also undermined the Popular Front in France. It disregarded left-wing morale’s international  dimension  in  1933–36.  It  squandered  the  potential for anti- fascist  rallying  via  combined  internationalist  and  patriotic  identification. Polarization  in  France  would  have  ensued—but  on  the  Left’s  own  terms rather  than  via  constant  retreat  and  with  rhetorical  advantage  constantly given away.32

Spain’s  Popular  Front  was  ambiguous  from  the  start.  It  embraced  the broadest spectrum of the Left—Socialists and their unions (the UGT), Com- munists, smaller ultraleft sects, and left Republicans. But its core was more specific,  the  Republican-Socialist  coalition  of  1931–33.  In  the  1933  elec- tions,  the  PSOE  had  broken  with  left  Republican  prime  minister Manuel Azana,  opening  the  way  for  a  right-wing  victory.33   The  ensuing backlash

was appalling, reversing progress toward land reform and labor laws and wreaking  endless  harassment  on  the  labor  movement.  While  the  reactive PSOE  uprising  of  October  1934  symbolized  resistance  to  fascism,  it  pro- voked  vicious  repression.  In  response,  a  potent  dialectic  of  electoral  co- alescence  and  popular  mobilization  was  released.  Azana  rallied  Socialists and left Republicans for democratic restoration, capturing popular imagi- nation  by  his  oratory  in  massive  rallies  during  May–October  1935.  But popular  hopes  raced  past  these  parliamentary  horizons,  embracing  more radical desires for change.34

The  government  elected  in  February  1936  needed  to  rally  republican defense without driving the middle classes to the Right. However, the PSOE was  bitterly  split.35    The  rightist  Indalecio  Prieto  backed  coalition  with Azana. But the PSOE majority, based in Madrid, the Socialist Youth, and militant  parts  of  the  UGT  had  veered  to  the  left.  Under  Francisco  Largo Caballero—veteran PSOE leader for three decades, architect of the UGT’s accommodation to Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship in the 1920s, minister of labor 1931–33, and now freshly declared revolutionary—the Socialists ab- stained from constructive government politics just when they were needed most.  In  November  1933,  Largo  exchanged  bourgeois  democracy for the dictatorship of the proletariat. He was behind the fiasco of October 1934 and the intransigence of 1935. He refused talks with Azana, thereby disa- bling  Prieto’s  republican  defense.  By  1936,  he  left  the  PSOE  Executive to form  an  alternative leadership.  He eventually endorsed the Popular Front but from outside the resulting government, fueling the verbal polarization and  incipient violence of  the coming  months. He demanded a wholly So- cialist government but tolerated the drift to civil war, denying the Popular Front its own majority party’s full support.

Largo was a disaster for the Republic, strutting on the stage of history while its real chances were missed. A Johnny-come-lately of revolution, he hijacked the militancy of 1933–36, denouncing reformist illusions and fir- ing  utopian  hopes  but  with  no  idea  of  how  power  could  be  seized, given the Left’s divisions and the Right’s fearsome strength. Largo was a consum- mate  corporatist politician—now the labor bureaucrat, negotiating a mo- dus vivendi from regimes in power and securing his members the best avail- able deal (the Primo de Rivera years); now the reforming Socialist minister

(1931–33);  now  the  neosyndicalist  voice  of  militancy  (1933–34).  But Spain’s societal crisis required greater political vision than this. When Largo struck  the  pose  of  revolutionary  tribune  after  1933,  he  sidestepped  this responsibility, urging the masses into confrontations he had no strategy for winning. As things fell apart  in May  1936 and  Prieto secured Azana’s el- evation  to  the  presidency,  leaving  the  premiership  for  himself,  Largo still withheld PSOE support. Yet, when forming a government two months after the military revolt, his reformist course was indistinguishable from the one he refused in May. After forming his government on 4 September 1936, he abandoned Madrid to the Nationalist advance on 6 November, leaving its

defense  to  General  Jose´  Miaja,  with  no  prior  warning  and  no  plans  for arming the people.36

Madrid was saved by its citizens. Largo had left a vacuum, into which the Communists stepped, fortified by the International Brigades and the all- important  Soviet  aid  arriving  from  November  1936.37   Aided  by  Largo’s self-styled “bolshevism,” the PCE already had its foot in the Socialist door, with the Communist CGTU joining the UGT and the two youth movements merging under Santiago Carillo, who was already attending PCE meetings. Communists  drew  huge  prestige  from  the  defense  of  Madrid,  boosting membership from a few thousand to a quarter of a million by May 1937. With direct lines to government under Largo, they relentlessly pressed the Comintern’s  guidelines  for Popular Fronts,  urging  the need at  all costs to avoid  alienating  either  the  British  and  French  governments  or  bourgeois democrats inside Spain by fear of revolution. Winning the war took utmost priority over social reforms. The PCE stood for centralizing authority, con- ventional military discipline, and respect for small property.

These goals were advanced against the popular hopes unleashed by the Republic’s defense. A vast militant sector was unintegrated into the Popular Front,  the  anarcho-syndicalism  of  the  CNT,  based  in  Aragon,  Valencia, Andalusia, and  industrial Catalonia (where it dwarfed the Socialists).38  In the summer of 1936, even the CNT was outflanked by revolutionary spon- taneity. After defeating the military rebels in five of the seven biggest cities and half the countryside, militants pushed on to form revolutionary com- mittees,  seizing  local  government,  and  collectivizing  industry and agricul- ture. In Barcelona, anarcho-syndicalism’s urban capital, CNT leaders were paralyzed: neither willing to run the Catalonian government nor ready to proclaim the revolution, they simply called for solidarity with the Republic, and  watched  while  their  supporters  seized  the  city  regardless.  The  social landscape exploded—flags, banners, insignia, posters, badges, workers with rifles,  everyone  in  blue  dungarees,  the  exuberant  stylistics  of  the  people capturing public space. As a Communist railwayman, Narciso Julia´n, who arrived  in  Barcelona  the  night  before  the  popular  insurrection  and  was swept up in its fervor, said, “It was incredible, the proof in practice of what one knows in theory: the power and strength of the masses when they take to  the  streets.  Suddenly  you  feel  their  creative  power;  you  can’t  imagine how  rapidly  the  masses  are  capable  of  organizing  themselves.  The  forms they invent go far beyond anything you’ve dreamt of, read in books.”39

Julia´n’s  next  sentence  was:  “What  was  needed  now  was  to  seize  this initiative, give it shape”; and this was the rub. Barcelona’s anarchism was inspiring,  everything  a  revolution  should  be.  But  anarcho-syndicalists  re- fused state power once the people controlled the economy via self-managed collectives, and this apoliticism removed CNT leaders from the republican coalition.  The  movement’s  utterly  incorrigible  localism  was  worsened  by the autonomy of workplace collectives, rogue militias, the shadowy influ- ence  of  charismatic  bosses,  and  the  violent  intransigence  of  the  FAI,  the

CNT’s  interior  vanguard.40   This  spelled  irresponsible disorder to the Cat- alan  government,  where  the  newly  formed  PSUC  and  the  Esquerra  were dominant.41   By  the  spring  of  1937,  half  the  Communists’  members  were now peasant owners, shopkeepers, artisans, and white-collar workers wor- ried  by  collectivization  in  town  and  country.  As  the  Republic’s  military fortunes  sank,  the  “passive  dual  power”  of  the  anarchists—keeping their parallel power structures but abstaining from government—became intol- erable. The government moved to evict them from the Telephone Exchange, and  after  a  week  of  street  fighting  (3–8  May  1937)  took  control  of  Bar- celona. Largo was replaced as prime minister by the moderate Socialist Juan Negri´n.

The Republic’s defeat—Bilbao fell to the Nationalists in June 1937, Gi- jo´ n in October, Aragon in March–April 1938, Barcelona in January 1939, and finally Madrid on 27 March 1939, with the Republic’s surrender on 1

April—owed much to this internal strife. Largo had squandered the chance to stabilize the government in early 1936, immobilizing the one party ca- pable of grounding the Popular Front. Then, by abruptly switching to re- publican  consolidation  on  forming  a  government,  he  left  his  supporters’ militancy dangerously high and dry. The PSOE was also haughtily hostile to the CNT, and these two Lefts dominated separate regions. To political divisions was therefore added geographical fragmentation, plus the rivalries of  countless  local  committees,  jealously  guarding  their  autonomy.  Com- munists,  easily  the  most  effective  republicans,  embraced  these  divisions. Licensed  by  the  indispensible  Soviet  aid  and  by  their  own  vanguardism

(undiminished  by  Dimitrov’s  strictures  at  Comintern’s Seventh Congress), the PCE behaved with increasing arrogance—maneuvering to monopolize key positions, especially in the reprofessionalized army; showing sectarian disregard for allies and contempt for opponents; ignoring democratic pro- cedures; and finally resorting to terror against rivals in 1937 (notably the Partido  Obrero  de  Unificacio´ n  Marxista  (POUM),  stigmatized  as  “Trots- kyist”  and  so  for  Stalinists  tantamount  to  fascism),  in  a  disgraceful copy of the Soviet purges.

This Stalinism reflected a larger weakness. Restraining revolutionary ex- periments to win the war was not the problem, because everyone (including CNT  leaders)  paid  lip  service  to  that.  But  making  this  into  a  dichotomy was a mistake. Prosecuting the war with a central command while securing the revolutionary gains were not mutually exclusive. As one PCE organizer said,  it  was  not  a  matter  of  sacrificing  the  revolution  altogether  but  of deciding “what sort of revolution should be made” and how it could help the  war.42   Losing  sight  of  this  was  the  PCE’s  big  failure.  After  the show- down with anarchists in Barcelona’s May Days, it moved completely to a bureaucratic style. In the summer of 1937, agrarian collectives in Aragon were rationalized. In Catalonia, workers’ control was replaced by nation- alization  and  central  planning.  The  PCE  aligned  itself  wholly  with  the PSOE  right,  with  conciliating  the  middle  classes,  and  with  conventional

warfare. This was a far cry from the heroic days of the defense of Madrid, when the PCE mobilized the people.

The PCE had another priority—to keep pressure on Britain and France to  intervene,  or  at  least  to  avoid  scaring  them  from  Soviet  cooperation. British and French non–intervention, when Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were  pumping  support  to  the  Nationalists,  was  an  unmitigated  calamity for the Republic, matched by the LSI’s passivity. But the Republican gov- ernment also excluded anything that would lead to “the enemies of Spain considering  her  a  communist  republic,”  as  Stalin  put  it.43   This  precluded guerrilla warfare to capitalize on the Republic’s popular enthusiasm, build- ing on the improvised mobilizations of the summer of 1936, while activat- ing  indigenous  traditions  (“guerrilla”  was  a  Spanish  term  from  the  anti- Napoleonic  struggle).  Ignoring  irregular  warfare  was  one  of  the  Popular Front’s  worst  omissions.  As  one  young  peasant  Communist,  an  officer in the Republican army, later said with regret, “If we hadn’t been convinced that  the  democratic  countries  would  come  to  our  aid,  different  forms  of struggle  would  have  developed. . . . This wasn’t a traditional war—it was a  civil  war,  a  political  war.  A  war  between  democracy  and  fascism,  cer- tainly, but a popular war. Yet all the creative possibilities and instincts of a people in revolution were not allowed to develop.”44


Not  only  did  the  Republic  lose  the  Civil  War,  leading  to  brutal  reprisals and three decades of authoritarian rule, but the Comintern’s strategy also failed. The Comintern hoped to combine both the United Front of working- class parties and the broader Popular Front. This was formally realized in the Largo Caballero government of September 1936, extended in Novem- ber toward the CNT. But many divisions undermined the effort. The big- gest  of  these  pitted  the  Comintern’s  advocacy  of  self-limiting  republican defense,  from  which  specifically  socialist  demands  were  dropped,  against the desires of the people militant, for whom revolution was all.

As an international strategy, the Popular Front also failed. British and French  support for nonintervention made it a nonstarter. Their refusal to support Spanish democracy ensured the Republic’s destruction. As the Re- public died, the western democracies were simultaneously appeasing Hitler in  central  Europe, first at the Anschluss with Austria in March 1938 and then  in  the  dismemberment  of  Czechoslovakia  in  September.  As  the  Na- tionalists took Madrid, Hitler’s armies marched into Prague. When Hitler immediately  turned  his  aggression  on  Poland  and  Britain  and  France still gave  the  USSR  no  response,  collective  security  for  containing  Nazi  Ger- many   was   in   shreds.   Stalin   drew   his   conclusions,   signing   the   Non- Aggression  Pact  with  Hitler  in  August  1939.  With  the  destruction  of  the Spanish and Czechoslovak republics, two more of Europe’s remaining de-

mocracies had gone. So far from rallying to their defense, the western de- mocracies preferred to dig their graves. At the CPSU’s Eighteenth Congress

(March 1939), the Popular Front strategy was tacitly dropped.45

The scale of Spanish atrocities was appalling. Republicans were not in- nocent  (six  thousand  priests  were  estimated  killed),  especially  in  the  em- bittered  countryside  of  anarchist  Andalusia,  where  rough  justice  was  dis- patched to the rulers.46  But as the Nationalists retook the south, the worst antirepublican killings were unleashed. In a fury of retribution, immediate eruptions of brutalized class hatred were succeeded by systematic terror— not  just  against  the  Left’s  activists  but  also  their  presumed  supporters among  workers  and  rural  laborers.  The  odious  Gonzalo  de  Aguilera,  a Nationalist officer, despised the Spanish masses as “slaves” and “lined up the  laborers  on  his  estate,  selected  six  of  them  and  shot  them  in  front of the others—‘Pour encourager les autres, you understand.’ When the Na- tionalists  took  Badajoz,  the  Chicago  Tribune  correspondent  reported  a massacre in the bullring of 1,800 leftists. Another American journalist saw a mass execution of six hundred captured militiamen on the main street of Santa  Olalla.  Colonel  Juan  de  Yagu¨ e,  the  butcher  of  Badajoz,  made  no bones: “Of course we shot them. What do you expect? Was I supposed to take  4,000  reds  with  me  as  my  column  advanced. . . . Was  I  supposed to turn them loose in my rear and let them make Badajoz red again?”47   For the  European  Left,  the  Spanish  Civil  War  was a  lesson  in  what to expect if the fascists won again.48

But the lessons of the Spanish Civil War weren’t all bleakness and defeat. The Civil War signified Guernica, not just as the scene of atrocity (on 26

April 1937,  when  the German Condor Legion bombed the town into de- struction)  but  as  Picasso’s  painting,  the  most  famous  instance  of  artistic creativity in the Republican cause. For progressives, the Republic symbol- ized  the  defense  of  humane  and  forward-looking  values,  the  place  where the vision of a better, more egalitarian world could be upheld. Here is the sculptor  Jason  Gurney:  “The  Spanish  Civil  War  seemed  to  provide  the chance for a single individual to take a positive and effective stand on an issue  which  appeared  to  be  absolutely  clear.  Either  you  were  opposed  to the growth of Fascism and went out to fight against it, or you acquiesced in its crimes and were guilty of permitting its growth.”49

The  International  Brigades—40,000  volunteers  from  over  50  nations, including 15,400 French, 5,400 Polish, 5,100 Italians, 5,000 Germans and Austrians,  over  3,000  each  from  the  United  States,  Britain,  Belgium, and Czechoslovakia—carried this solidarity. They included political exiles from the already fascist or authoritarian parts of Europe; Communists, socialists, and independent idealists; students; artists and creative intellectuals; polit- ically conscious workers, like most of the 169 volunteers from Wales—all united by a sense of political momentousness, of needing to take a stand.50

For those who stayed at home, Spain was also a noble cause, a chance to halt  Europe’s  drift  toward  fascism,  the  place  where  “Our  thoughts  have

bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever / Are precise and alive,” as W. H. Auden’s great poem put it.51  In Britain, where a Popular Front was opposed by  the  iron  control  of  the  Labour  Party  right,  an  international  solidarity campaign  was  coordinated  by  the  National  Joint  Committee  for  Spanish Relief  that  involved  many  autonomous  local  and  union  groups.  This  less tangible  effect  of  the  Popular  Front  in  Spain,  the  symbolics  of  popular antifascist identification, remained for the future.

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