Revolutionary illusions and delusions.

Despite the fact that many participants in the Spanish Civil War were convinced  they were engaged in an anti-capitalist revolution, the reality as it unfolded in the 1930’s, demonstrated something different. Events proved in 1930’s Spain that an anti-capitalist revolution was never more than an ideologically inspired illusion for some and a deliberately promoted delusion by others. In most cases  an anti-capitalist aspiration was nothing more than a politically induced fantasy!  In Spain, as elsewhere, during this entire period, the factors necessary for a post-capitalist society were not in existence. In addition, it seems clear that a basic level of understanding of revolutionary transformations was deficient if not entirely missing from much of the ‘left’ public discourse within Spain as well as internationally. To have a chance of being successful, an anti-capitalist revolution requires the following.

First the mode of production must have ceased to represent the needs and aspirations of a majority of those who are part and parcel of its economic, social and political fabric. Second, sufficient socio-economic elements of a new potential mode of production need to have already materialised. Third, any general dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs, has to sufficiently seep into the ranks of the ruling elites to cause serious intellectual and practical splits among them. Fourth, the dissatisfaction among the general population requires the more or less rapid development of a common focus, a generally shared goal, large numbers of activists and crucially a more humane practice than those who are determined to defend the outmoded system.  None of these factors were more than partially fulfilled.

The end result of this lack and the above-noted illusions (along with the divisions yet to be discussed) was not a social revolution but a political polarisation of society and a descent into a bitter civil war.  From very early on the struggles within the Spanish Civil War quickly degenerated into a veritable holocaust of death and destruction. As we shall see, this outcome was a result which the sectarians among the anarchists, communists and socialists played an active part in promoting. It was a tragedy that has haunted the collective memory of Spain for decades and it should not be hard to understand that it still has a degree of contemporary relevance – for sectarian battles continue within the contemporary class war.

A sectarian war within a class war.

It is in the early stages of what became a civil war that the previously noted political differences on the left – including the revolutionary left – became transformed from a battle of ideas into direct physical combat. Some militia groups attached to Anarchist groups and socialist groups began to compete to implement agrarian reform by the forcible dispossession of large landowners possessions. The class war intensified. In other areas of Spain ancient hatreds against economic oppression and exploitation spilled over into assassinations of hated figures whilst other groups in other places burned churches and killed priests. In many places local self governing committees were set up to control roads and communications networks.

As noted, there were socialist groups, trade union groups, anarchist groups and non-affiliated groups who had their different agendas and modes of operation. Such diversity might have been a creative advantage offsetting the fact of no centralised control by involving ever greater numbers in becoming self-active, self motivated and organised. But sadly this was not to be. The dominant sectarian tradition within these left forces, meant that each section thought their ideas and practices were the ‘correct’ ones and should dominate proceedings. Thus began an internecine struggle for resources and domination among the forces opposed to Franco and the nationalists.

Like many other internationalists, (famous and otherwise), the writer George Orwell had joined a brigade as a fighter in the Spanish Civil War. His experiences there led him to make the following observation concerning left infighting, in the book  ‘Homage to Catalonia’ based upon his time there;

“In Barcelona there had been a series of more or less unofficial brawls in the working class suburbs. CNT and UGT members had been murdering one another for some time last; on several occasions the murders had been followed by huge, provocative funerals that were quite deliberately intended to stir up political hatred.” (Orwell. Homage…. Chapter 8.)

He observed that after only 6 months of fighting, the republican government had to resort to conscription which indicated a lack of support and the lack of a clear positive purpose which would encourage a sustained flood of volunteers. He also noted that politically conscious people were far more aware of the internecine struggle between Anarchists and Communists than of the fight against Franco. That direct experience in Spain led Orwell to gradually explore the logic of the system of political sectarianism with full control of state power. Two of his subsequent works, ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’, both in different styles, in literary form, laid bare the internal structure of the Stalinist form of this schismatic aberration.

But this sectarian struggle of militant left political activists against each other was not the only debilitating problem created by political turmoil in Spain. Another dimension of the sectarianism in Spain was in relationship to those who – for whatever reason – stayed neutral or were critical of the ideas and methods of some of the extremist militia men. Paul Preston in his well researched book, ‘The Spanish Holocaust’ noted the following with regard to the make up and actions of some of the armed patrols.

“Thus the armed members of the patrols were made up of a mixture of extremists committed to the elimination of the old bourgeois order and some recently released common criminals. In the main, they acted arbitrarily, searching and often looting houses, arresting people denounced as right-wing and often killing them. As a result, by early August, over five hundred civilians had been murdered in Barcelona.” (Preston. …The Spanish Holocaust. page 228.)

Paul Preston devotes a whole chapter in the above-noted book to this ‘gratuitous’ violence on the left which although, as he points out, was much less than the right violence, was nevertheless considerable. There were also many extra-judicial assassinations by the left of other left personnel. Arbitrary searches, looting and arresting on the basis of denunciations without some kind of transparent, accountable process or proof was no better than what happened under the previous form of aristocratic authority and later under the Fascist. I suggest this behaviour was part of the ‘muck of ages’, noted by Marx!

The muck of ages.

I have elsewhere written on the comment by Marx on the need for the revolutionary class to rid itself of the muck of ages. [See Marx and the Muck of Ages.] Here I will draw attention to another remark Marx made which is relevant to this context. It is with regard to the consciousness of those who see the eventual necessity of revolution against the capitalist mode of production. He argued that;

“A class must be formed…which does not claim a particular wrong, but wrong in general…a sphere of society which claims no traditional status, but only human status…This…as a class is the proletariat. (Marx. Contribution to Critique of Hegel’ s Philosophy of Right.)

In other words the working class, or at least large sections of it, need to understand that to be successful they need to rise above their immediate own class interests. Their own freedom from oppression and exploitation can only be achieved by ending all forms of systemic oppression and exploitation. A revolution against the domination of capital means more than a struggle for their own immediate protection or improvement under the capitalist mode of production. Revolutionary workers need to see themselves as acting on behalf of all sections which suffer under capitalism.

Additionally, a post-capitalist revolution needs to be a thoroughgoing social revolution not a political revolution. In short the working classes seeking to free themselves are in effect representing the future for all humanity.  In this endeavour they must do all they can to represent and defend those unable to defend themselves. More than that they need to do their utmost to gain support not only from those already convinced and committed, but from those who are at first neutral or even for a time passively hostile.

This realisation was clearly not the case for the left in Spain during this period.  Much of the left in Spain seemed not to realise – or not to care – that anyone who they robbed, tortured or killed unfairly or unnecessarily had friends and family. Many of those family and friends were turned against those perpetrating or justifying such arbitrary violence on the left as well as the right.  Such extreme incidents, once set in motion on the left, not only acted as a barrier to some people from joining the anti-capitalist or republican struggle but such ‘dawn-squad’ groups acted as a pole of attraction for those who actually enjoyed unleashing violence.

Indeed as the civil war developed another twist was added to this downward sectarian spiral. When Franco’s side committed bombing atrocities and killed people, the extremists on the republican side wreaked violence not on the guilty, who simply flew away, but on right wing people close by who were innocent of any crime. This indiscriminate violence was mirrored by the Franco-led nationalists who also took revenge on innocent republicans when they could not easily get at the perpetrators of crimes. On the republican side as well as the nationalists side people, were increasingly detained, tortured and assassinated simply because of their political affiliation – even if they had not committed any direct injury or act of aggression.

This inhuman degeneration could not but negatively effect the chances of winning the civil war, let alone transforming the war into a revolution.  The extremists on all sides, left, right and centre saw everyone who did not agree with them as not deserving to be treated as human beings, but as pests to be eliminated. This included turning on each other for the slightest doctrinal difference. Outstanding among these sectarian thugs on the republican side were some of those affiliated to the Stalinist Communist parties, sections of the anarchists, some of the bourgeois liberals and some left socialists. Outstanding purveyors of depravity on the nationalist side were the Falange, the North African brigades,  the Foreign Legion and some Catholic clergy and of course Franco.

So it is a matter of historical record that sectarians on all side’s tortured, raped, stole, lied, cheated, murdered and betrayed. In an important sense it matters little that the side associated with Franco’s nationalists outdid by 3 to 1 the inhumanity of the republican side. The result was that millions who might have been won to a genuine revolutionary transition, stayed neutral, became critical or even in some cases swapped sides. The unfolding of this sectarian depravity and its sustained virulence was one of the important factors which destined the class struggle for a change in the mode of production in Spain to be deflected and thus defeated. The anti-capitalist struggle simply disgraced itself and was deflected away to be replaced by a war between democracy and Fascism.

As a consequence, even the transition to a open civil war was to the disadvantage of the republican side and to the advantage of Franco and the nationalists. In such circumstances and under such a combination of conditions, how could it be otherwise? And given the conditions of Spanish life at the time, most of this disastrous outcome could have been predicted, because 90 years previously Karl Marx, – who some of the sectarians claimed to follow – wrote the following;

“These conditions of life, which different generations find in existence, decide also whether or not the periodically recurring revolutionary convulsions will be strong enough to overthrow the basis of the entire existing system. And if these material elements of a complete revolution are not present (namely, on the one hand the existing productive forces, on the other the formation of a revolutionary mass, which revolts not only against separate conditions of society up until then, but against the very ‘production of life’ till then, the ‘total activity’ on which it was based), then as far as practical development is concerned, it is absolutely immaterial whether the idea of this revolution has been expressed a hundred times already…” (Marx. German Ideology.)

It needs to be recognised that the revolutionary masses in  Spain, and that includes those who self-appointed themselves to leadership positions, were not clear on the previously noted requirements. They could not go beyond or rise above trying to settle old scores, wreak arbitrary vengeance or satisfy their own particular conditions or sectarian perspectives. It is also clear that the other part of the ‘necessary material elements’, the existing productive forces, were insufficiently developed in Spain at the time to sustain a post-capitalist mode of production. However, the latter requirement might have perhaps been developed if the former (the muck of ages) had not been present. But it was.

Concluding remarks.

So in effect the underlying class struggle element within the Spanish Civil War (as it was during the Second World War) became diverted away from a social revolution against the capitalist mode of production, into its opposite. Despite a profound crisis of the capitalist mode of production working class energies were deflected and directed into a struggle between two tendencies among the national and international bourgeoisie; in fact three tendencies if we include the Stalinist state officials as among those dedicated to continuing capital (state owned) and maintaining wage-labour.

In the 20th century working people, were drawn into a global struggle between the democratically inclined bourgeois classes and the undemocratically inclined; between the State-capitalist Fascist and the State-capitalist Stalinist elite and the Liberal Democratic capitalist state elite. Workers were again drawn into killing each other – on mass – for the purpose of being exploited by one ruling class or another Their fate was to be used as cannon fodder in order to become the wage-slaves of Fascism, Stalinism or Liberalism.

Undeniably, sectarianism played an instrumental role in sowing illusions and divisions among working people. This in turn assisted the bourgeoisie in undermining and diverting of the struggle against capital.  It is a historical fact, still with contemporary relevance, that the relative small size of ruling elites requires them to be able to divide those they seek to conquer and/or rule. The cliché ‘divide and rule’ is no less relevant by being repeated add nauseum. Left sectarianism, once injected into working class struggles, created another division conveniently erected and maintained by the left itself.  The ruling elite in Spain led by Franco were thus materially helped by left sectarianism as well as by the military support provided by Hitler and Mussolini.

Finally, in any serious crisis of the capitalist mode of production, it helps the ruling elite to invent or create an existential ‘enemy of the people’ in order to invite or compel working ‘people’ to fight for the capitalist system rather than against it. The 20th century saw the rise of Fascist state-capitalism and Bolshevik state capitalism both of which served to deflect the struggle against capital into one of support. In the 21st century the evolution of militant Islamic Fundamentalism creates another potential diversion of working class energies and creativity into defending neo-liberal capitalism instead of opposing it. And of course injecting the poison of sectarianism into the working class struggle remains the default characteristic of many of those considering themselves anti-capitalist.

Roy Ratcliffe (February 2016.)

This entry was posted in Anti-Capitalism, capitalism, Critique, Marx, neo-liberalism, Politics, Reformism, Sectarianism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Cecil says:

    Where will it all end.

    • Hi Cecil! I am not sure what you mean by where will it all end. Not sure there is an answer to that question. But I would hope the answer to WHEN will sectarianism end or cease to be a dominant factor on the left, I think it only will when people on the left seriously start to combat it in their own and others conduct and thinking.
      Regards, Roy

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