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The Road to a Popular Front

Helen Graham on the political coalitions in Spain in the 1930s and their role in blocking Fascism.

The Popular Front initiatives of the 1930s in Spain and France were parliamentary experiments in social and economic reform conceived, against a background of ever-increasing Fascist aggression in Europe, as a means of checking political reaction in the domestic arena. But the Popular Front was more than just similar political strategies being put into action in two different countries, rather it was the product of the convergence of national and international political initiatives. The factor connecting the French and Spanish experiences was the adoption of the Popular Front strategy at the VII Congress of the Communist International in July-August 1935.

The Popular Front was envisaged as a policy of inter-class alliance at national level which would complement the Soviet Union's international strategy of collective security. This latter project, though never realised, was to be an alliance system based on the mutual defence pacts the Soviet government wished to make with the western democracies of Britain and France. The Soviet reason for seeking such pacts was clearly to shore up her national defences against potential external aggressors, in particular Nazi Germany. The Popular Front and the idea of international collective security were complementary strategies, in that both involved the forging of alliances across class boundaries in opposition to a common enemy, Fascism. With the Popular Front, in both France and Spain, proletarian political parties allied with those of the bourgeoisie, and, likewise, internationally, collective security sought alliances between bourgeois democratic states and the prototypical proletarian state.

The term 'Popular Front' in the context of Spain before the civil war, is most accurately used to describe the parties within the electoral pact which was victorious at the polls on February 16th, 1936. The pact was subscribed to by the entire Spanish left, with the exception of the still apolitical anarchist trade union organisation, the CNT, whose members, nevertheless, voted en masse for the Popular Front candidates.

While in Spain as well as in France the strategy of Popular Front was subscribed to both by socialist and Communist parties and those of the bourgeoisie, the road to the Popular Front in Spain was the converse of the French experience of 1934 in which a Socialist-Communist alliance was extended to include the radical party in a wide rassemblement populaire. The origins of the Spanish Popular Front, are to be found in the Republican-Socialist coalition of 1931-33. This government alliance constituted the first attempt to enact the fundamental reforming legislation – to limit the secular jurisdiction of the Catholic Church, to professionalise and depoliticise the army and to redistribute land, and it was this desire to implement reform – which was to be the raison d'etre of the 1936 Popular Front alliance in Spain.

Ironically, however, in Spain too it was to be the commitment of the Communist Party (PCE) to the Popular Front which would invest the project with real credibility in the eyes of the Spanish working class. The failure of the 1931-33 experiment to make legislation a reality in the face of conservative obstruction in parliament, the administration and the regions, had damaged the reputation of the immensely powerful Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) with considerable numbers of its own members. This was because the Party had participated in government during those years and had generally underwritten the efficacy of parliamentary reform with its own prestige.

It was thus the PCE, previously isolated on the periphery of working-class political life because of its miniscule size, which created the impression of political originality that assured the Front of massive popular support.

The government constituted after the electoral triumph of February 16th, although termed Popular Front, was an entirely Republican administration and this homogeneity was a reflection of the internal dislocation of the Spanish Popular Front. From the beginning it was weakened immensely because the Spanish Socialist Party, which, given its size and strength, should have provided the driving force for the programme of social and economic reform, was riven by a serious internal dispute.

This division which set reformist socialists, or social democrats, against the revolutionary wing of the party, appeared to be concerned with the fundamental tactical debate over how to achieve a socialist state – by a violent seizure of power by a party of the revolutionary vanguard, or by the 'long march' of working through the existing institutions of state. In fact, the dispute had much less to do with differences of political doctrine or tactics than it did with specific organisational rivalries in the socialist movement. The net result of the division was chaos and dislocation of unprecedented dimensions within the party which ought to have formed the foundation of the Popular Front as an experiment in parliamentary reform. Instead, this internal division, with the left wing refusing its consent to further socialist participation in government, effectively neutralised the Socialist Party and the subsequent absence of the PSOE from power made the implementation of a programme of reforms in the crucial period after the February 1936 elections an absolute and utter impossibility. Had a strong executive power existed then – strong, that is, both in its determination to enact thoroughgoing social and economic reform and to deal severely with the military conspirators who opposed the Republic – it is conceivable that the coup of July 17th-18th, which unleashed a full-scale civil war, could have been successfully forestalled.

To describe the PSOE as the essential component of the Second Republic's (1931-36) experiment in social and economic modernisation by parliamentary means does not in any way exaggerate the importance of the party. The PSOE was, at least until 1936, the party of the Spanish working class par excellence, with a well-established national network, a long tradition of reforming zeal and, most importantly, of parliamentary activity. Given that the anarchist trades union, the CNT, abhorred all political activity and the PCE was miniscule, it is hardly surprising that the weak forces of progressive republicanism, and particularly their able leader, Manuel Azana, should in 1931 have looked to the socialist organisation as a natural ally. For the opposition to the proposed reforms was indeed powerful. The forces of economic oligarchy had mobilised rapidly to prevent any alteration to the existing balance of socio-economic power in Spain, as was, of course, implicit in the Republican reforms.

In the struggle to block the modernisation of Spain's social and economic structures, the most threatening and intransigently conservative group (and equally the most threatened) were the latifundistas, the owners of the vast agricultural estates in the centre and south of the country. Spain in the 1930s was an overwhelmingly agrarian economy, and therefore a correspondingly backward one. Without a significant shift in the balance of land ownership – which to the Popular Front meant, fundamentally, settling the landless on the latifundistas' land – there could be no possibility of rationalising agricultural production in Spain and no chance, therefore, of significant modernisation. The Republican administration was indeed prepared to indemnify the land owners, even though this in itself presented a financial problem, but the owners remained irreconcilably opposed to the reforms.

As a party, the PSOE had not only shored up the progressive Republicans with its own electoral 'muscle' – it was socialist votes which furnished Azana, the prime minister of the 1931-33 coalition, with his majority in the Spanish parliament – but it also provided a wealth of practical and moral support. Yet, for the Socialists, the value of the Republic, since its foundation in April 1931, had always been viewed as consubstantial with its reforming achievements. As a mere political form it had no intrinsic worth. Indalecio Prieto, the leader of the reformist wing of the party, reaffirmed this commitment to reform in his famous speech at Cuenca on May 1st, 1936, when he stated that the Popular Front initiative, like the Republic itself, provided a framework for the 'interior conquest' of' Spain. His defence of continued socialist collaboration in government, against the violent opposition of the party left, was based on his assessment of the balance of class forces in Spain in the 1930s. Prieto believed that the weakness of the Republicans, and ultimately, therefore, of the middle classes in Spain, made it necessary for the Socialists to take on the historic task of the bourgeoisie, that is, to realise the bourgeois democratic revolution, thereby modernising Spain by means of a programme of reforms which, whilst they would not strictly speaking be 'socialist', would go a long way towards improving economic conditions in Spain.

However, for the left of the PSOE, still smarting from the failure of 1931-33 and the damage done to the reputation of the party, there could be no question of a repetition of coalition government in 1936. As a result of its earlier experience of government, the left seemed convinced that real social and economic reform was impossible within the framework of a bourgeois democratic state, and, consequently, that any repetition of socialist involvement would only weaken the leadership still further. It is true that by the end of 1935 the socialist left, with its power base in the socialist-led trades union, the UGT, had accepted the idea of an electoral alliance, if not a coalition government. However, its involvement in the Popular Front pact can be seen entirely as a response to pressure from its own members.

For the wellsprings of the Popular Front in Spain as in France were indeed popular. In both countries, but supremely in Spain, there was a strong desire among the rank and file of the political parties and organisations of the left to achieve some expression of unity, if not full organisational unity. This was seen as an instrument with which to fight political reaction on the home front. The lessons of Italy, Germany and Austria had been assimilated. The Spanish proletariat wished to mobilise in order to ensure that they should not share the fate of the left and the working class elsewhere in Europe.

Indeed, the 'climate of unity' in Spain was born of a particularly bitter domestic experience of class conflict. In October 1934, when the miners of the Northern coalfields of Asturias rebelled against the abrogation and erosion of Republican reforms by a succession of conservative governments, defeat had brought a repression which left many thousands of political prisoners in the jails. It was the demand for an amnesty which focused the enormous popular fervour and enthusiasm that were so much the hallmark of the Popular Front electoral campaign. The socialist left, always sensitive to currents of opinion emanating from the rank and file, reacted to this overwhelming demand for political amnesty, thus opening the way for the realisation of the Popular Front pact and the electoral victory of February 1936.

As a result of the February victory of the Popular Front, the right determined to take its struggle against reform beyond the parliamentary arena. The links between the politicians of the clerical and monarchist right and the military conspirators were tightened, and in May, faced with the growing threat of military sedition, Indalecio Prieto attempted to bolster the Republican government by taking over as prime minister. The only opposition to his so doing came predictably from the left wing of his own Socialist Party. Yet, in the event, this opposition proved insurmountable. The government of 'Popular Front' remained a collection of weak Republican politicians, many of whom were decidedly second rate and all of whom were oblivious, some notoriously so, to the magnitude of the threat posed by the military. Indalecio Prieto's warnings in this respect had consistently fallen on deaf ears both with the left of his own party and with the ruling Republicans.

Prieto's failure to procure the premiership was indeed doubly damaging to the cause of the Popular Front. For Prieto's attempt to secure the premiership had been the second half of a political strategy whose first principle had consisted in the elevation of the previous prime minister, Manuel Azana, to the presidency of the Republic at the beginning of May 1936. When Indalecio Prieto was debarred by the left, the post of prime minister was taken by the ineffectual and tubercular Republican, Casares Quirogo. The failure of Prieto's dual strategy and the removal of Azana as the strong man of progressive Republicanism and the single most important factor of cohesion between the parties of the left effectively reduced to nil the possibilities of defusing the military time-bomb.

Casares Quiroga and the cabinet which he selected in May 1936 represented the forces of Spanish Republicanism at their lowest ebb. The paralysis of the government between May and the coup of July 17th-18th confirmed the fears of many of the conservative and even moderate Republicans who, faced with the evidence of the tremendous political polarisation which they had witnessed in Spain between 1934 and 1936, were no longer convinced that the greatest threat to the Republic, came from the military conspirators. A majority of Spanish Republicans harboured an immense fear as to the extent of the aspirations of the Spanish proletariat, what one might call the 'social base' of the Popular Front, which they saw as verging on revolution. The fatal passivity of the Republican government in the spring and summer of 1936 is only comprehensible if it is appreciated that republican parties, always a fragile minority, saw themselves as trapped between the devil of military reaction and the deep blue sea of incipient popular revolution. All the fear and hostility of the Spanish Republicans towards the proletariat were fully revealed at the time of the spontaneous land occupations of the latifundias in Southern Spain which occurred in the spring of 1936 in the wake of the Popular Front victory.

In view of this Republican inaction, it would be both inaccurate and unfair to seek to lay the entire responsibility for the failure of the Popular Front to confront and defuse the military threat at the door of the Spanish Socialist Party. However, the deadlock within the party had a profoundly destabilising effect which no other political group was able to counter, at least before July 18th. It is true that discipline within the socialist parliamentary minority was, by and large, maintained: the party left voted with the reformist socialists and refrained from tabling awkward questions about the origins of street violence and the destabilising tactics of the right. However, while this undoubtedly contributed to the stability of the always precariously placed Republican government, such measures were inevitably piecemeal, and the military continued to conspire.

The Popular Front, as it had been conceived in Spain by progressive Republicans and reformist socialists on the basis of the reforming coalition of 1931-33, but strengthened by the commitment of the Spanish Communist Party and by the enormous popular backing which this afforded, thus remained unrealised throughout the spring and summer of 1936. The experience of military coup, Republican paralysis and popular revolution in the second half of 1936 further impeded its realisation. It can be argued that the Popular Front in Spain was only genuinely achieved in May 1937 when, as a consequence of the cabinet crisis which finally excluded the socialist left from government, the reformist socialist and close ally of Prieto, Juan Negrin, assumed the premiership. He led a government such as Prieto might have headed a year previously, had the left's opposition been less or his own political courage greater. Negrin, however, took control in radically different circumstances. To Prieto would have befallen the task of advancing the programme of social and economic reforms which constituted the basic objective of the Popular Front, while acting resolutely to liquidate the threat of military coup. Negrin, called upon to lead a wartime government, was required to perform nothing less than a political miracle. While organising the defence against the Nationalist war machine, he had also to attempt to engineer a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and this in the most inauspicious of circumstances, given the hostile international climate and, in particular, Britain's commitment to appeasement. The famous image of Negrin as the incarnation of Republican resistance was far from being a mere creation of the propaganda machine or the exaltation of an abstract ideal. Negrin's commitment to resistance was born of his fundamental pragmatism. It was no more than a response to an impossible international situation where appeasement was in the ascendant. In Spain, neither the Republic nor the strategy of Popular Front failed: political and military defeat were the result of the fact that the national and international alliance systems which were the pre-conditions of victory never materialised.

Helen Graham is lecturer in Spanish at the University of Southampton, and co-editor of the forthcoming The Popular Front in Europe for Macmillan. 

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