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From The Socialist newspaper, 17 May 2017

Barcelona May Days 1937 - a civil war within a civil war

'POUM' militia fighters being captured at the Battle of Guadarrama - at the start of the Spanish Civil War, POUM fighters held the line before other forces got organised

'POUM' militia fighters being captured at the Battle of Guadarrama - at the start of the Spanish Civil War, POUM fighters held the line before other forces got organised   (Click to enlarge)

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the 'May Days' in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Below is a reply to an article in the Observer on 7 May (both this and a shorter version were unpublished) by Socialist Party general secretary Peter Taaffe.

Professor Paul Preston's attack on George Orwell and the veracity of the latter's account of the Barcelona events of 1937, 'Homage to Catalonia' (Observer 7 May), is a scandalous distortion of events and cannot be left unanswered.

Orwell's was a relatively accurate account of the attempts of the POUM (Workers' Party of Marxist Unity) to defend and extend the gains of the Spanish Revolution against the capitalist-Stalinist counter-revolution being waged within the civil war.

True, the POUM committed a big error in entering the Catalan government, sacrificing its class independence. But the 'Popular Front' government's attempt to take the Barcelona telephone exchange (Telefonica) - a symbol of workers' control - in May 1937 met with mass resistance.

The government's attempt to take over the telephone exchange, led to Barcelona workers arming themselves and building barricades. Very quickly, the whole of Barcelona was in their hands.

Anthony Beevor, a capitalist historian but more honest than Preston, wrote: "The anarchists had an overwhelming numerical majority, holding almost 90% of Barcelona and its suburbs."

He added: "These overwhelming advantages were not used because the CNT-FAI knew that further fighting would lead to a full civil war within the civil war, in which they would be cast as traitors, even if the nationalists were unable to take advantage of the situation."


Yet a "civil war within the civil war" was already taking place through the onslaught of the counter-revolution against the gains of the working class. Such processes unfold in all revolutions, which see shifts to the left leading to attempts at counter-revolution and to a further movement forward of the revolution.

This was a classic case where a small but determined revolutionary party like the POUM could have won over the masses. But, instead of openly campaigning for a militant, conscious policy of resistance and for the completion of the revolution, the POUM leaders went for diplomacy behind the scenes with the CNT leaders. This gave the initiative to the counter-revolution, which denounced the POUM and the anarchist organisation, Friends of Durruti, as 'agents provocateurs'.

Cheered on and organised by the Stalinists, the counter-revolution crushed the movement in Barcelona and effectively liquidated the Spanish revolution. All the horrors of Stalinist barbarity were now unleashed in the secret prisons, the use of torture, the assassination of the POUM leaders Nin and Andrade, and the similar deaths of anarchists and other workers, which Preston concedes.

The Barcelona events represented the high point of the revolution. The 'civil war' afterwards took on a purely military character. Accordingly, the masses became increasingly indifferent to its outcome.

Rather than follow the distortions of Professor Preston, it would be better if those interested in the Spanish Revolution read the works of Leon Trotsky (The Spanish Revolution, 1931-37) and Felix Morrow (Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain).

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