Sunday, April 3, 2022

The Last Hour in Madrid (1939)

From the April 1939 issue of the Socialist Standard

What actually caused the revolt in Madrid that took place during March is not easy to discover with certainty. One thing, however, can be said without possibility of error. Men in that beleaguered city, awaiting the final assault of General Franco, and his foreign armies, would not have tried to seize power by force of arms without having what in their eyes was a very urgent and satisfactory reason. The revolt was apparently led by Communists, and received the approval of the Communist Daily Worker, but some accounts from Madrid itself indicated that by no means all the Communists there took part in it—whether because they opposed it or were taken by surprise is again in doubt. The view held by many observers was that, after the loss of Catalonia to Franco, many elements in the Madrid political parties were favourable to seeking surrender on whatever terms could be obtained. If, in these circumstances, some of the men who in any case would be Franco’s first victims, preferred to resist to the last, rather than submit, nobody could call their courageous attitude in question.

The nature of the case put by the two sides can be seen from a few typical statements: The Communist Daily Worker (March 5th, 1939) reported from Paris that the surrender policy was “the product of direct intervention by the British and French Governments,” working in conjunction with Franco. The Daily Telegraph was quoted by the Daily Worker to the effect that it was known in London at least a week earlier that Colonel Casado and Senor Besteiro (members of the Council of National Defence, against which the revolt took place), had been in touch with Franco and proposed to surrender once they had established their authority. The Daily Worker, (March 7th) had this to say of the Council: —
“The Council is composed of ex-professional officers, anarchists and Right-wing members of the Socialist Party. Political organiser of the movement is Julian Besteiro, a member of the Right-wing of the Socialist Party. Throughout the whole war Besteiro has been a leader of the capitulationists. As long ago as the end of 1936 he was notorious on account of his close contacts with the British diplomatic agents in Spain and elsewhere . . .”
The case put forward by the Council of National Defence (on which apparently the chief workers’ organisations, except the Communists, were represented—Manchester Guardian, March 7th), was that the Negrin Government had come under foreign Communist influence; had hidden the true facts of the military situation from the people, and were “hoping for a world war” to save themselves and their Government. This last charge Negrin denounced as absurd.

So much for the explanations given by the two sides.

The struggle itself, though comparatively short, was bitter, and must have weakened still further Madrid’s capacity to withstand the attack being prepared by Franco.

What was tragic was the bitterness of feeling among groups of workers, which could countenance this slaughter under the eyes of the enemy outside the gates. The Madrid correspondent of the Daily Telegraph could report (Daily Telegraph, March 8th), that: “Lieut-Colonel Mera, the Anarchist military leader, has brought veteran Anarchist shock troops . . . into Madrid to assist in suppressing the rising.”

The diplomatic correspondent of the Manchester Guardian (March 8th, 1939) reported executions of Communists in Madrid, and stated that once the supply of arms from Russia ceased there had grown up much anti-Communist feeling. The Daily Express (March 8th) alleged that the Anarchists shared this feeling towards the Communists because of their part in putting down the Anarchist-Syndicalist revolt which took place in Barcelona, with heavy loss of life, in 1937.

One ironic feature was a statement issued from General Miaja’s headquarters, that “Troops loyal to the new Defence Council, with abundant war material, are marching on Canillejas ” (i.e., marching to suppress the revolt) (The Times, March 10th, 1939). How often have Miaja and his Communist admirers lamented their lack of war material for the war against Franco.

One thing the revolt does show again: that is the difficulty or the impossibility of achieving real unity by merging together in a Popular Front parties and individuals who differ fundamentally in aim, outlook, and method. It was obvious in 1936 that it would be an enormous task to secure unity between long standing opponents like the Spanish Labourites, Anarchist-Syndicalists, Communists, Trotskyites, Liberal Republicans, Catholic Basque Separatists, etc. The revolt in Barcelona, and now this revolt in Madrid, together with the frequent inability to secure effective and loyal co-operation, show that, even the stress of war will not make men who think differently work to a common programme.

One writer (Jose Martin Blazquez—”I Helped to Build an Army.” Seeker and Warburg, 15s.), who was an army officer, and sided with the Republicans in the early part of the war, maintains that the Party rivalries made it impossible to build up an efficient army. There again, as Franz Borkenau maintains in his preface to the book, there was not one view of what kind of army to build, but three incompatible views—a revolutionary popular army like that of the French after the revolution, a “political” army like that of Russia, or a non-political army like the British. The Anarchists favoured the first, the Communists the second, and the army officers and Liberal-Republicans the third. According to Blazquez, the circumstances made the task impossible.
Edgar Hardcastle