The Political Situation and the Tasks of the Proletariat
Nin’s critique of the popular front strategy in Spain, and the Communist Party’s role in it, was intended to provide the basis for a discussion on political strategy at the POUM national conference in June 1937, but the party was outlawed before it could take place. This translation is taken from David Beetham, ed., Marxists in Face of Fascism (Manchester University Press, 1983). The original can be found on the Fondación Andreu Nin website (www.fundanin.org).
The 1931-5 experience had more than shown the inability of the bourgeoisie to resolve the fundamental problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution and the need for the working classes to put themselves resolutely at the head of the emancipation movement to carry out the democratic revolution and to start the socialist revolution. The persistence of democratic illusions and of the organic alliance with the republican parties, was to lead fatally to the reinforcement of the reactionary positions and, in the near future, to the triumph of fascism as the only escape from a capitalist regime incapable of resolving its internal contradictions within the frame of bourgeois-democratic institutions.
The lesson from Asturias, where the proletariat, on resolutely taking over the leadership of the movement in October 1934, delivered a mortal blow to the reaction, and that from Catalonia, where at the same time the incapacity and irresponsibility of the petty-bourgeois parties was evident once again, was not made the most of, as a result of the absence of a large revolutionary party. The Socialist and Communist parties, instead of taking advantage of the October lesson by pushing the workers’ alliance, which had given such splendid results in Asturias, and channelling all the forces towards securing the hegemony of the working classes, subjected the proletariat again, through the popular front, to the bourgeois republican parties, which after their resounding failure in October had virtually disappeared from the political scene.
The period immediately preceding the elections of 16 February was characterised bv the galvanisation of the republican parties, thanks to the efforts of Socialists and official Communists, and by a certain rebirth of democratic illusions among the masses who, however, seemed to be moved more by the vehement desire of obtaining amnesty for the prisoners and convicts of October than through confidence in the republican parties. This wish was so unanimous, and the movement so overpowering, that our Party had no choice but to join it, while retaining its personality and independence intact, and exercising a harsh and pitiless criticism of the republican parties. This tactic, which saved us from isolation, allowed us to get closer to the broad masses, until then out of our reach, and disseminate our principles among them.
The conduct of the leftist republicans in power, after 16 February, was an absolute confirmation of our forecasts. From the beginning, a deep split was established between the government and the powerful drive of the masses who forced it to issue the amnesty decree and started a vast and profound movement of strikes. From below, rapid and energetic action was demanded together with a policy of revolutionary achievements and of rigorous measures against the reaction, which was growing more insolent every day. From above, a policy of passivity, of fatal leniency was carried out, a policy whose motto seemed to be not to change anything, not to startle anybody nor to damage the interests of the exploiting classes. The result of this policy was the military-fascist uprising of 19 July 1936. On that early morning in July the explosions of cannons and the crackle of machine guns woke the workers, who still harboured illusions of democracy, from their sleep. The electoral victory of 16 February had not cleared up the problem created in our country. The fascist reaction resorted to more forceful arguments than the ballot paper. Making use of the privileged position granted them by the republican government itself, by keeping them in the most important strategic positions, the vast maioritv of army officers, at the service of the reactionary classes, started the Civil War.
This resolute intervention by the workers had enormous political consequences. The bourgeois organs of power were, in reality, destroyed. Revolutionary committees were set ud everywhere. The permanent army collapsed and was reulaced bv the militias. The workers cook possession of the factories. The peasants rook over the land. Convents and churches were destroyed bv the purifying fires of the revolution. In a few hours, or it most in a tew days, the workers and peasants, by direct revolutionary action solved the problems which the republican bourgeoisie naa nof been able to solve in five years – that is to say, the problems of the democratic revolution – and they started the socialist revolution with the expropriation of the bourgeoisie.
For a certain length of time the organs of bourgeois power were no more than a shadow. The revolutionary committees exercised the real power, forming a dense network in all the regions nof occupied by the rebels.
However, in this initial period the revolutionary drive was much stronger in Catalonia than in Spain. Catalonia went undoubtedly to the head of the revolution because thanks to the influence of the POUM, the CNT, and the FAI who did nof join up with the popular front, democratic republican opportunism had penetrated less into the working masses.
The fascist insurrection then, destined principally to sulfocate the working class revolutionary movement, accelerated it verv rapidly, giving the class struggle an unheard-of violence, and squarely posing the problem of power: either fascism or socialism. What was intended as a preventitive counter-revolution became a proletarian revolution, with all the distinguishing features of the same: slackening of the bourgeois state mechanism, decline of the army, of the coercive forces of the state, and of the judicial institutions, arming of the working classes, who attacked and damaged the right to private property, direct intervention bv the peasants who expropriated the landowners, and finally the conviction, on the part of the exploiting classes, that their domination had ended.
In the first weeks following 19 July, the conviction that the past could not return, that the democratic Republic had been overcome, was widespread. And the drive of the revolution was so strong that the petty-bourgeois parties themselves proclaimed the end of capitalist rule and the necessity of undertaking the socialist transformation of Spanish society.
The only immediate way to co-ordinate the thrust of the masses into creating a strong power, based on the organisms which had come out of the entrails of the revolution, as a direct expression of the wishes of those who had played the leading roles roles in the fight against fascism. This strong power could be none other than a government of the workers and peasants. This position, supported by the POUM from the moment at which the character of the fight became clear, ran up against opposition from all the popular front parties, and above all from the Communist Party, and against the indecision of the CNT, whose anarchist ideology prevented it realising the fundamental and decisive importance of the power problem.
Meanwhile, with the help of a tenacious and systematic campaign, two ideas with unfortunate consequences for the victorious development of the working class struggle, were breaking through. The first of these ideas was expressed in these terms: "First win the war. then the revolution will look after itself." According to the second, which is a direct consequence of the first, the workers and peasants are fighting the present war to maintain the parliamentary democratic Republic and, therefore, one cannot talk of a proletarian revolution. Later this idea underwent an unsuspected change: the dramatic battle which caused great bloodshed and ruined the country, became "a war for national independence and the defence of the homeland".
From the very first, our Party adopted a stance of resolute opposition in the face of these counter-revolutionary ideas.
In reality, the formula "First win the war ..." conceals the effective intention of frustrating the revolution. Revolutions have to be carried out when the circumstances are favourable, and these circumstances are rarely offered to us by history. If we do not rake advantage of the times of greatest revolutionary tension, the class enemy will gradually reconquer positions and will end up by strangling the revolution. Nineteenth century history, and the more recent post-war history (Germany, Austria, Italy, China, etc) offers as numerous examples in this sense. Putting off the revolution until after the war is won is equivalent to leaving the hands of the bourgeoisie free so that, by taking advantage of the decrease in revolutionary tension, they can re-establish their mechanism of oppression in order to systematically and progressively prepare for the restoration of capitalist rule. War – we have already said – is a form of politics. Political regimes always serve a particular class of which they are the expression and the instrument. While the war goes on policies must be made: to serve whom; which class interests? This is the whole question. And the guarantee of a sure and rapid victory at the front lies in strong revolutionary policies at the rear, capable of inspiring the fighters with the necessary spirit and confidence for the battle; capable too, of promoting the revolutionary solidarity of the international proletariat, the only one on which we can rely, to create a solid war industry to rebuild the economy, upset by the civil war, on socialist foundations, to form an efficient army at the service of the proletarian cause, which is that of civilised humanity. The instrument of these revolutionary policies can be none other than a workers’ and peasants’ government.
In the present, unequivocally revolutionary situation the slogan "fight tor the parliamentary-democratic Republic" can serve no other interests than those of the bourgeois counter-revolution. Today more than ever, "the word democracy is no more than a cover with which to stop the revolutionary people from rising up and attacking, freely, intrepidly, and on its own, the construction of the new society" (Lenin). As revolutionary Marxism has shown us, the democratic Republic is no more than a camouflaged form of bourgeois dictatorship. At the height of capitalism, when this represented a progressive factor, the bourgeoisie could allow itself the luxury of conceding a series of "democratic" liberties – considerably limited and full of conditions, because of its economical and political domination – to the working classes. Today in the imperialist era, "the final stage of capitalism", the bourgeoisie, in order to overcome its internal contradictions, is forced to resort to the establishment of regimes of brutal dictatorship (fascism) which destroy even the paltry democratic liberties. Under these circumstances, the world finds itself racing a fatal dilemma: either socialism or fascism. The "democratic" regimes must inevitably be transient and inconsistent, with the added difficulty that by calming the workers and stripping them of their dreams, they are effectively preparing the ground for the fascist reaction.
In order to justify their monstrous betrayal of revolutionary Marxism, Stalinists argue that the democratic Republic that they propose will be a democratic Republic different from the rest, a "popular" Republic from which the material base of fascism will have disappeared. That is to sav, that they scandalously leave to one side the Marxist theory of the state as an instrument of domination of one class to fall into the Utopia of the democratic state which is "above classes", at the service of the people, with the aim of deceiving the masses, and preparing the pure and simple consolidation of the bourgeois regime. A Republic from which the material base of fascism has disappeared, can be no more than a socialist Republic, since the material base of fascism is capitalism.