The Comintern and Antifascism in Spain, 1931-1939

Studies on fascism have become ever more numerous and undoubtedly will continue for a very long time, but studies on antifascism are by comparison much less common. This is the case despite the fact that even during the heyday of fascism there were many more antifascists than fascists. Broader studies of antifascism probably merit greater attention than they have received.
Of all the nonfascist powers, none so effusively wrapped itself in the banner of antifascism as did the Soviet Union, first from 1935 to 1939, and then in perpetuity after Despite the obvious similarities between fascism and communism (or perhaps because of them), antifascism became fundamental to the political identity of the Soviet Union, and also of its post-World War II satellite states.
From the moment of the rise of Italian Fascism in 1921, communists and fascists became ware that they shared key new features and policies not characteristic of traditional political parties, though that did not lead them to the conclusion that they represented similar phenomena. Certain fascist intellectuals were more willing than their communist counterparts to accept the proposition that at a certain level of abstraction—for example, the genus of modern revolutionary movements—they were different species of a common set of political forces. Conversely, the attitude in Moscow by 1923 was that Italian Fascism merely represented the violent arm of a backward and primitive south European bourgeoisie.
What communist writers grasped immediately was the great utility of the term fascist as a political pejorative and form of stigmatization, applying it indiscriminately to all manner of political forces of the bourgeoisie, the right, or «reaction.» Thus in 1923 the Fourth Comintern Congress saw «fascism» all over, even in the United States. Yet the analysis was so vague and undifferentiated that it might mean no more than that anticommunism could be found in every country.
The Fifth Comintern Congress of 1924 announced that the initial time of revolutionary opportunity that had opened seven years earlier was now concluded, and a new «liberal-pacifist period» of «capitalist stability» had commenced in the capitalist world. This would subsequently become known as the Second Period. Political labeling became more circumspect, the new tactic of the «united front from above» encouraging united action with social democratic groups, which were no longer denounced as «social fascists.» By 1925 fascism was seen increasingly as a problem of more backward southern and eastern European lands, where the bourgeoisie lacked strength and sophistication.
The next shift in policy was announced at the Sixth Congress in 1928, which took place when Stalin was about to impose a radical new Soviet internal policy with collectivization and its war against the perceived internal enemy. The external corollary was the Comintern’s declaration of the beginning of a new Third Period in the world revolutionary process, in which a new crisis of capitalism was at hand to make the world situation «objectively revolutionary.» For the Comintern, this was as near as it ever came to accurate prediction. Fascism was seen as a greater danger than before, as Third Period doctrine returned to the theory of «pan-fascism.» The practice henceforth was to label all non-communist forces as merely another form of fascism, the number one enemy being the «social fascism» of social democratic parties, which must be defeated and destroyed in order to win the workers to revolution.
The key country for Third Period policy was Germany, where the rapid rise of Nazism was judged as only weakening the bourgeois system. The communists launched their main assault on the SPD, and even when their analysis proved completely false, formation of the initial Hitler government was received calmly. As in the case of the first Mussolini government, it was held to be inevitably transitory, but nonetheless the concept of fascism among Comintern leaders had to be altered. The Thirteenth Plenum in November that year of the Comintern’s Executive Commission recognized the fallacy of the earlier notion that fascism could only triumph in underdeveloped lands. The Hitler regime not merely consolidated itself, but rapidly increased its strength. Relations between Berlin and Moscow steadily deteriorated, while the Third Period failed to register revolutionary gains anywhere.
A sense of increasing danger led to the new Soviet policy of collective security, first adumbrated during 1934, which would ultimately put a complete end to Third Period strategy. The change in political tactics was announced at the Seventh Comintern Congress, which met in Moscow during July-August 1935. Georgi Dimitrov, the Comintern’s new secretary general, announced the need for «a broad people’s antifascist front,» facilitated by a new definition of fascism as «the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital.» This definition was much narrower than the one used during the Third Period, logically exempting social democrats and other elements of the non-communist left, as well as democratic middleclass (technically «bourgeois») groups. Dimitrov now held that fascism should not be considered the same form of domination as bourgeois democracy, but was much worse. The problem was made more serious by fascism’s ability to generate mass support from broad sectors of the petite bourgeoisie, and even from some workers. Countries identified as «fascist» were Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland and Hungary.
To combat this scourge «a broad people’s antifascist front» was required, even though Dimitrov declared that the new tactic produced no change in fundamental Comintern strategy. The basis of any alliance would still be «the proletarian united front,»which must be adjusted to conditions in every country. The language was at first somewhat ambiguous, but pointed toward a Popular Front that would be broader than a worker united front, for it would seek to unite all worker and/or democratic antifascist forces, even those of the petite bourgeoisie. This would logically lead to Popular Front coalition governments, but such governments would not necessarily include the Communist Party, at least at first. Since 1921 Soviet and Comintern policy had posited two routes to revolutionary power. The most common and obvious was direct insurrectionary tactics, which had failed in every country, European or Asian, in which they had been attempted. The other was the coalition tactic, heretofore only essayed in Outer Mongolia, conquered by the Red Army in 1921. Three years later the People’s Republic of Mongolia was organized, not an officially communist regime but one including and led by communists, declared to be a semi-pluralist democratic bourgeois regime en route to socialism. Mongolia, however, was not an attractive symbol to be invoked at the Seventh Congress, but the Popular Front coalition governments which might issue from the new tactics were potentially seen as transitional people’s republics. Dimitrov emphasized once more that this involved a change in tactics, not a change in revolutionary strategy.
Could he have foreseen the virtual unanimity with which most western liberal historians would write for the next three generations that the Popular Front tactic was based on «renunciation of revolution,» he would doubtless have been delighted by the disinformation achieved. At the Congress he stressed that a Popular Front coalition government would constitute «a special democratic intermediate stage lying between the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat,» and was not at all intended to delay transition to the latter. It could be no more than temporary, a tactic for the defeat of fascism that would also have the advantage of advancing «the revolutionary training of the masses.»
Dimitrov explained further that such a government would very likely be necessary to deal with crisis situations but stipulated three prerequisites for Communist participation: First, willingness to reject the policies and functionaries of the bourgeoisie; second, commitment of the masses to vigorous struggle against fascism and reaction; and, third, the willingness of at least a sizable part of the social democrats to support severe measures against fascists and other reactionary elements. Since, as it turned out, in neither of the western democracies where a Popular Front triumphed were other parties willing to meet these antidemocratic demands, communists did not enter Popular Front governments under democratic conditions in either France or Spain.
A full Popular Front government would not be a western liberal democracy but a «democracy of a new type.» Under the banner of antifascism, such a «new type democracy» would not introduce socialism but would begin nationalization of selected parts of the economy and distribute land to poor agriculturalists. This type of government would be formed «on the eve of and before the victory of the proletariat,» and was «in no way» to restrict communist activities. The ultimate goal remained the insurrectionary seizure of power and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Dimitrov emphasized: «We state frankly to the masses: Final salvation this government /of the Popular Front/ cannot bring…. Consequently it is necessary to prepare for the socialist revolution! Soviet power and only soviet power can bring such salvation!»

For the next four years the Comintern would proceed on a two-track strategy that or the communists had the advantage of confusing many political associates and commentators at the time and has largely confounded historians ever since. The two tracks referred to two different tactics, since the ultimate strategy would be the same at the end of both tracks, but the existence of dual tactics has simply been too complicated for most analysts, even though the basic concepts were clear. The united front under communist direction remained the basic revolutionary tactic viv-a-vis other worker parties, such as the Socialists, though for the moment its functioning had to be subordinated to the broader tactic of the Popular Front. The latter was simply the macropolitical tactic of the moment to combat fascism and achieve a broader alliance than the united front of worker parties. The latter had to do with long-range development of revolutionary worker politics, the Popular Front with national elections and potential government coalitions in the short term. As François Furet has put it, «The dictatorship of the proletariat and the overthrow of the bourgeoisie were still the ultimate goal; the prescribed path, however, was different.»
Palmiro Togliatti, Comintern supervisor for western Europe, delivered the second most important speech at the Congress, emphasizing what had now become the standard line of the Comintern leadership: defense of the Soviet Union must be the top priority of all communist parties. During the course of the year, in his published «Lessons on Fascism,» Togliatti developed further his own interpretation, which he had first advanced nearly a decade earlier, providing the most sophisticated analysis of fascism yet presented by a communist leader. Referring primarily to the Italian case, Togliatti drew the fundamental distinction between movement and regime, declaring that Italian Fascism had been a «movement of the petit-bourgeois masses» that subsequently became a «dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.» He also warned about the difficulty of attempting a rigid final definition, since Fascism was not the product of any firm plan but subject to further development and evolution. Despite its use of the concept of the totalitarian state, Italian Fascism at that time could only be considered in the process of developing full totalitarianism, something it had not as yet accomplished. This was a distinct advance over the Marxist-Leninist interpretation published the year before by the leading British theorist, R. Palme Dutt, which defined fascism as the irrational product of the final phase of decaying capitalism, capable only of entropy and decline, though its irrationality might produce dangerous initiatives during its death throes.
As collective security and Popular Front policy developed, neither necessarily implied official Soviet hostility to the two principal regimes of «open fascism.» Trade between Berlin and Moscow expanded, though Hitler excluded arms exports, and David Kandelaki, the Soviet trade representative, was used repeatedly to explore improvement of relations in other areas. The Soviet government denounced Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia and supported the League of Nations’s feeble attempt at sanctions, but restrictions to Italo-Soviet trade never went beyond the official embargo list. Compared with the decline in British and French trade with Italy, Soviet trade dropped only a little, while Soviet oil shipments increased significantly, fueling the same Fascist war machine that Soviet representatives ritualistically denounced in Geneva. Germany’s remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1936 was taken more seriously by the Kremlin, though it responded with yet another feeler to Berlin for improved relations. The subtleties of Soviet policy were nonetheless lost on Mussolini, who deeply resented its stance on collective security, and by the close of 1935 a breach had begun to open in relations between Rome and Moscow that was never again fully closed, being widened further by the Spanish Civil War.
Popular Front policy made its great breakthrough in the first half of 1936, as the new Spanish Popular Front won a narrow but decisive victory in the general elections of February and its French counterpart did likewise three months later. There was, however, considerable difference between the two alliances, for Spanish politics were much unstable and even revolutionary than those of France. Since its founding in 1920, the small Spanish Communist Party (PCE) had, sometimes with bewilderment, devotedly followed comintern policy. During the first years of the Spanish Republic, this required constant denunciation and attempted subversion of the latter as being no more than «a transition government to the open dictatorship of the grand bourgeoisie,» which would soon become «an open fascist dictatorship.» By 1939, that would virtually be the case, but in the meantime the Communists would play their part in helping to bring it about.
Antifascism first became a significant theme in Spain in 1933, when significant rightist forces first emerged in that country. What the Comintern called «open fascism» (i. e., true generic fascists) consisted of no more than one tiny group, Falange Española, considerably smaller than the PCE, but the new Catholic party, the CEDA, which sought a corporative Catholic republic, emerged from the elections of November 1933 as the largest single party in Spain. Antifascism suddenly became a potent rallying cry, perhaps more than in any other country, as nearly the entire left denounced the CEDA as «fascist,» even though the Catholic party adhered to strict legality and eschewed all violence, which was more than could be said for most of the left. Polarization of Spanish affairs had begun; little encouragement was needed for most of the left to call anything on the right «fascist,» just as much of the right called a large part of the worker left «communist,» though the PCE itself remained an insignificant organization. All this was the more surprising since the leader of the revolutionary wing of the Spanish Socialists, Francisco Largo Caballero, had told the International Labor Organization as recently as June 1933 that «in Spain, fortunately, there is no danger of fascism.» Even after the CEDA’s electoral triumph, the pro-Leninist ideologue of the Socialists, Luis Araquistain, agreed, citing in his article in the April 1934 number of the American journal Foreign Affairs the absence in Spain of any significant demobilized group of war veterans, of any great masses of urban unemployed, of any strong nationalism or militarist ambitions, or even of potential leaders. All these points were fully accurate.
What had happened in Spain was simply a large political mobilization of Catholic voters against the extremist anticlerical legislation and other leftist programs of the Republic, which was more similar to republican Portugal or revolutionary Mexico than, for example, to the early French Third Republic. Consequently forces of the right, virtually non-existent when the Spanish Republic was inaugurated in 1931, by the beginning of 1934 had a greater presence in parliament than did the left, which the latter found intolerable. Thus whereas in 1931 Spanish Socialists had adopted a reformist social democrat program that was even one step to the right of French Socialists, by the beginning of 1934 they found themselves excluded from power and veered toward revolutionism. The fact that at least two different outcomes—losing as well as winning—are possible in democratic elections came to the left as a great shock. To this was added the thunderclap of the destruction during 1933-34 of the two large German-speaking socialist parties, among the strongest in Europe. These sudden changes encouraged what many Spanish Socialists called their bolchevización—a desire to convert their organization into a revolutionary party equivalent to that of the Communists, whom in Spain they vastly outnumbered. Beginning in the autumn of 1933, even before the elections, the Spanish revolutionary left—mainly Socialists but also including Communists—began to fall on individual members of the rightist parties and of the tiny new fascistic Falange with a vengeance, killing at least twenty of them over a period of months before the Falangists began to reply in kind in June 1934. By that time the Socialists were planning a violent revolutionary insurrection to seize power, while the Communists, who had been preaching insurrection for years, remained on the outside looking in, since the Comintern would not generally approve alliances until the following year.
Up to that point the PCE, on Muscovite instructions, had routinely referred to the Socialists as «social fascists,» or even occasionally as «fascists,» pure and simple. At first, it had been hard to find any political force in Republican Spain whom the Communists did not call fascist. After Hitler came to power, however, Spain was one of the first countries where the strictures against «social fascism» and the insistence on the «united front from below» (i. e., no alliances) began to be partially -but only very partially- relaxed. As early as March 1933 the PCE proposed formation of «Antifascist committees» and an «Antifascist militia» with other worker parties, but since the PCE clearly intended to dominate, this gained little response, even though the Spanish Communists launched their own United Antifascist Front (FUA), manned principally by Communists. Theoretically it was the FUA, though in fact the PCE, which then organized the first Spanish Communist militia, the MAOC (Worker-Peasant Antifascist Militia).
Communist alliance policy slowly began to change in Spain during1934 as Dimitrov laboriously maneuvered the Comintern toward the Popular Front. The major focus for this new policy was France, but there the political situation remained relatively stable, whereas that of Spain was becoming extremely volatile. Encouraged by hints from Moscow, Spanish Communists angled toward antifascist alliance with the Socialists, though, since the latter refused Communist terms while planning their own Socialist insurrection, they continued intermittently to refer to Socialists as «social fascists» as late as August 1934, even though by that time the schizophrenic effects of such a pejorative were beginning to cause vertigo. For years the Comintern had urged the PCE to organize soviets and insurrections in Spain, but now that a genuine revolutionary insurrection was about to break out, the Communists were not the ones organizing it. The Comintern bosses finally yielded to PCE supplications in September 1934, though they insisted that in the joint insurrection Spanish Communists must officially proclaim the maximalist Communist revolutionary program. At the last minute the PCE was thus able to participate in the Spanish Red October of 1934, a multi-party worker insurrection led by the Socialists, which was completely crushed, but not before it had convulsed much of the country, decisively advancing polarization.
Revolutionary insurrection of course contradicted what would soon become the Popular Front policy, but such matters were never a problem for the Comintern. Whereas Spanish Socialists fled or were imprisoned and sought to avoid prosecution by denying any responsibility for what they had done, on Comintern instructions the PCE leaders claimed the banner of the insurrection for communism, though Communists had had little to do with it. The PCE thus announced leadership of both militant antifascism and active revolutionism in Spain, enjoying a propaganda windfall and gaining a notable increase in membership.
Precisely because the political situation was decaying much more in Spain than in France, the introduction of Popular Front policy was more complicated south of the Pyrenees. In France the PCF was able to adopt the «high» Popular Front line during 1935, since a «low» revolutionary united front was impossible in that country, but Spain suddenly became the only land in which both tactics could be pursued simultaneously. While the new line was being worked out in Moscow, the PCE vehemently championed «antifascist revolution»—something currently not being talked about by its French counterpart—while it pursued fusion with the much larger but divided and confused Spanish Socialist Party. The Comintern advocated «antifascist revolution» through expansion of the Worker Alliance, an antifascist revolutionary worker front created earlier not by the Communists but by the Leninist (though antiStalinist) Worker-Peasant Bloc (BOC-POUM) and the Socialists, which the Communists had only joined belatedly.
What became the Popular Front in Spain at first was called somewhat confusingly the Popular Antifascist Concentration (CPA) and then in June 1935 the Popular Antifascist Bloc, so that the term Popular Front was not fully in use in that country until the beginning of 1936 (and even then certain Communist spokesmen would occasionally become confused). Moreover, throughout 1935 and the first months of 1936 the purely transitory tactical nature of the Popular Antifascist Bloc/Popular Front was loudly proclaimed in Spain, whereas in France such references might only be found in fine print. Socialists were repeatedly urged in the strongest possible public terms to merge with the Communists in order to expand the Worker Alliance, which, in conjunction with the Popular Antifascist Bloc (aka Popular Front), would soon proclaim a Provisional Revolutionary Government. The failed insurrection of 1934 was labeled unconvincingly the «first defeat of fascism,» the basic concept being that only successful revolution would guarantee the final victory of antifascism. Full adoption of the Seventh Congress’s dictates would require revamping the revolutionary program to fit it within the new tactic, but the Comintern quickly squared this circle by declaring that the Popular Front tactic would be more «advanced» in Spain. Thus by the beginning of 1936 the PCE and the much larger «Bolshevized» sector of Spanish Socialists prepared a joint program for the next elections that called for semi-revolutionary changes in order to institute Dimitrov’s «new type» republic.
The Spanish Popular Front was only formally organized in mid-January, the other leftist parties (minus the anarchosyndicalists) somewhat surprisingly accepting the Comintern label for their new alliance. This required moderation of the immediate PCE program, though in Moscow Dmitri Manuilsky, Dimitrov’s chief lieutenant, informed the Spanish leaders that such moderation would only be a short-term tactic, the main goal remaining the same: «the dictatorship of the proletariat, the smashing of the bourgeoisie through violence» and the establishment of the Soviet model. Manuilsky emphasized that even during the electoral campaign, the PCE (unlike its French counterpart a few months later) must go beyond the program of the Popular Front by announcing vigorously its intention to complete the full «bourgeois democratic revolution» as soon as possible, in order to go on to the «democratic dictatorship of the proletariat.»

Nor did the Popular Front’s victory on 16 February 1936 at first alter this orientation, though it substantially overrepresented the PCE by giving it a notable parliamentary delegation (17 seats) for the first time. On 25 February Mundo Obrero, the party organ, came out with a revolutionary program for the new government. There was no «Trojan horse» pretense, as has sometimes been alleged; the program was perfectly frank. Contrary to the allegations of most of the pertinent historiography, the PCE did not occupy a moderate position within the Spanish Popular Front, but continuously maintained the most advanced position. It initially proposed that the Popular Front be flanked by an expanded revolutionary Worker Alliance, whose goal would be to replace the new Popular Front government with a revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government as soon as possible.
This two-track strategy was first modified in April 1936, as the Comintern reacted othe remilitarization of the Rhineland and growing German power. From that point there was less and less emphasis on the prospect of revolution in Spain, the stress thenceforth lying on strengthening Popular Front power, eliminating all rightist political groups and developing a strong leftist government in Spain to complement Soviet strategy. The small fascist party, Falange, was outlawed by the new government in mid-March, so far as is known the first fascist party to be outlawed by a democratic government in western Europe. From April onward, the PCE sought to rein in other sectors of the revolutionary left, Comintern leaders becoming alarmed that the situation in Spain might get out of hand and create complications for Soviet foreign policy. The present situation was optimal: leftist control of most institutions, making it possible to legislate the elimination of rightist parties and interests without resorting to revolutionary violence. Conversely, a blow-up resulting in civil war might produce a drastically different equation, its outcome uncertain. Hence during the late spring and early summer of 1936 Comintern tactics emphasized legalism, but even the legalist tactics were so drastic in their assault on rightist interests—seeking to institute the «new type» all-leftist republic—that is some respects they hastened the very Spanish chiliasm which consciously the Communist leadership sought to avoid.
The civil war that erupted with military revolt on 18 July posed a dilemma not onlyfor the Comintern, but very soon a serious problem for the Soviet government, as well. To that point antifascist collective security had achieved little as a diplomatic strategy, whereas Comintern Popular Front tactics had been much more rewarding. They had initiated what François Furet has called the Soviet Union’s «second antifascism,» not based on the earlier isolated revolutionary extremism—a resounding failure—but on multiparty alliance. They were winning support among antifascist liberals in the West that would never have been directly accorded to Soviet Communism, and had become the most promising Comintern strategy in Europe since the downfall of the Bela Kun regime in Hungary in 1919.
The Spanish revolution which broke out in the first two months (July-August 1936)of the Civil War—proportionately the most spontaneous and far-reaching worker revolution in all European history—was led by anarchists, «Bolshevized» Socialists and the independent Leninists of the BOC-POUM. Soviet leaders were appalled, because when the Spanish revolution suddenly came, it did so in defiance of the Comintern line. From the beginning, the Comintern insisted on the channeling of the Spanish revolution, on two grounds. The first was that the revolution was extreme, violent, unplanned and economically destructive, undermining the war effort against the counterrevolutionary right, on which, after all, everything depended. The second was that the revolution did not create adequate social and economic bases for the present phase of the revolution, since it alienated much of the peasantry and the lower-middle classes, whose support was indispensable. To the intense anger of Communists, the revolutionary extreme left labeled the Communist policy «counterrevolutionary,» charging that the Communists rejected any revolution which they could not control. The latter charge was correct, though the first was not. Nonetheless, many historians have accepted the polemic of the extreme left as anonical fact, so that Hugh Thomas entitled a major section of his classic history «The War of the Two Counterrevolutions.»
Though with more than a little grumbling, Spanish Communists remained faithful to the dictates of the Seventh Congress, as reinterpreted for Spain in the spring of 1936. This definition held that the present phase of the revolutionary process could only consolidate the «new-type» all-left republic, which for international exhibition must have the external form of a parliamentary regime, though of a special sort. It would follow the precedent of Mongolia in 1924 as an all-left regime in which all significant non-leftist forces had been eliminated and any countervailing economic power broken. Its economic structure would not imitate that of Stalin’s Soviet Union but of Lenin’s NEP. This would mean a mixed economy, with the nationalization of major industry but retaining a basis in private property, pursuing agrarian reform while avoiding wholesale collectivism. This sort of revolutionary state, not yet a socialist worker-peasant government, defined the limits of the revolutionary process in a west European country during 1936-38. Anything else was, according to the Communists, doomed to total contradiction and defeat, and would not win from the capitalist democracies the support needed to defeat fascism. Such a program was «counterrevolutionary» only in its channeling of the collectivist revolution of the extreme left. In no way did it propose to go back to the democratic capitalist Republic, but to substitute for it the «new type» regime appropriate to the present phase of the revolutionary process in Spain, politically somewhat akin to Mongolia in 1924. This was a coherent program that provided the best opportunity to win the civil war.
It was the Comintern leadership which immediately pointed out the need to replace the militarily incompetent revolutionary militia with a regular new «people’s army,» similar to the Red Army of the Soviet Union, together with the need to form a broad and united all-Popular Front government. Both these initiatives were undertaken by the new Popular Front government of Largo Caballero in September 1936. There was nonetheless real danger this would amount to too little, too late, as the Spanish «White» forces, soon to be commanded by General Francisco Franco, went on from victory to victory. At this point Stalin, after considerable hesitation, decided in mid-September to make a major military commitment to the revolution and to the struggle against fascism in Spain.
The delay of two months was due, first of all, to the fact that this would represent a major extension of Soviet military engagement. All other initiatives abroad—the invasions of Poland in 1920 and of Outer Mongolia the following year, invasion of North Manchuria eight years later, and the expeditions into Afghanistan in 1929 and into Sinkiang in 1933—had involved operations geographically contiguous to the Soviet Union, and the last two had been extremely small-scale. To act at the opposite end of Europe would be much more complicated, compared with which the competing support of Germany and Italy for the Spanish insurgents was easier and simpler. It involved risks of a sort that Stalin did not normally undertake. There is some evidence that support of the Spanish revolution mobilized the more ideologically committed sectors of the Soviet leadership, and especially among communist parties abroad, creating pressures that Stalin could not readily ignore. As the only revolutionary state in the world, the Soviet Union could hardly fail to assist the only ongoing revolution in Europe. The other side of the equation was the assistance being provided the insurgents by Italy and Germany. If a policy of collective security was to be promoted to combat fascism, for the moment the only place to conduct such a struggle was Spain. These were compelling considerations, representing each side of Soviet policy toward the world—the conventionally diplomatic and the Comintern revolutionary. Other factors were the creation of the new all-left Largo Caballero government, representing the first attempt to organize and to focus the revolutionary forces, giving them a chance for victory, and another the evident willingness of the Republican government to pay in gold from the ample reserves of the Bank of Spain. Financially the intervention might cost nothing (soon nearly the entire remaining Spanish reserve would be shipped to Moscow), the military commitment would be «secret» (it would never be admitted to the Soviet public until after the death of Stalin), and politically it was a gamble that might return significant dividends. The decision was finally taken by Stalin in mid-September 1936.
Because of the non-intervention policy adopted by the western powers, most of the arms received by the Republican forces during the next two and a half years came from the Soviet Union. These included 700-800 late-model aircraft, nearly 350 advanced model tanks and much ordinary materiel. This was accompanied by 2,000-3,000 military personnel, of whom there were rarely more than a thousand in Spain at any one time. All were officers or specialists, serving as military advisors, combat aviators or tank crewmen. About 200 were killed. Such assistance played a major role in Republican resistance, helping for a time to reverse the tide of victory by the insurgents. Though inadequate to win the Civil War, it served to prolong it by two and a half years.

Such crucial assistance, together with the relentless concentration of the PCE on military development, led to the emergence during 1937-38 of a limited Communist hegemony within the Republican forces, though never to total domination (as so vehemently alleged by the Francoists on one side and the extreme left on the other). It reached an apogee under the government of the Socialist leader Juan Negrín, pragmatically proSoviet though not doctrinally Marxist-Leninist, which led the Republican war effort from May 1937 to the end. In the process, the Communists labored with considerable but nonetheless very uneven success to channel the revolution, build a powerful Republican People’s Army on the Soviet model, and institute the Comintern’s own version of a nuanced NEP socioeconomic revolutionary model for Spain.
All this attracted enormous international attention as the principal struggle against «fascism» during 1936-38, and won the sympathy of millions who would have had no interest in merely supporting a Stalinist program. Within this antifascist struggle, however, Soviet officials and Comintern agents found «fascism» also pandemic among the antifascist forces. Their reports to Moscow are full of the most scathing and sometimes hysterical denunciations of anarchist «fascists,» noncommunist Republican army officer «fascists,» and «Trotskyist» hyper»fascist» militants of the ultra-revolutionary POUM, thoroughly suppressed in June 1937.
Interpretation of the Soviet role and of Communist policy would generate the most complex of many controversies during the Spanish Civil War. The two most categorical interpretations are those of the right and the extreme left. For the former, the antifascist crusade was simply a Trojan horse designed to introduce Soviet domination of Spain. The reading by the extreme left is somewhat similar, but gives the Soviet Union even less credit for antifascism, agreeing with the right about the goal of Soviet domination but insisting that the Spanish revolution was throttled above all on behalf of the great power interests of Moscow. The Spanish Communist self-image, conversely, was that the party led the only possible «responsible revolution» for a «new type» people’s republic, while concentrating on the struggle against fascism. The official Soviet definition of the Spanish war, coined by the Comintern in October 1936, was the «Spanish national revolutionary war,» «national» in the sense of a war of liberation against international fascism. Most historians, as mentioned, have accepted some variant of the interpretation by the extreme left, as nearly all repeat each other without investigating Communist policy itself. Some give the Soviet government credit for a degree of altruism, while others do not. Very occasionally the question is raised as to whether Stalin really thought that he could promote west European collective security measures by assisting the revolutionary cause in Spain, whose very existence tended to repel the British government, as well as much of French political opinion.
The available evidence nonetheless supports the conclusion that Stalin did indeed believe that he could implement such a two-track policy. It was, after all, perfectly consistent with the standard Soviet procedure of maintaining normal diplomatic and commercial relations on the one hand, while promoting revolutionary Comintern activity on the other. Hence the great concern to maintain the secrecy of «Operation X,» as the military intervention was code-named, and to limit it carefully in scope. Though the Soviet foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov, chief spokesman for collective security, was apparently skeptical that the intervention could be anything other than counterproductive as far as collective security was concerned, the importance of attracting British and French support was emphasized again and again both within the ranks of the PCE and equally among the other forces of the Spanish Popular Front. Thus nearly all the revolutionary forces accepted to some degree the need for a «grand camouflage,» in Burnett Bolloten’s expression, of the revolution in order to win western democratic support. Only the POUM and the most extreme sector of anarchosyndicalists completely rejected this tactic, a stance which further sealed their doom as Communist power advanced. Litvinov’s skepticism was not shared by Stalin, as between the autumn of 1936 and the spring of 1937 Soviet assistance helped to achieve what was widely hailed as the «first defeat of fascism.» There were secondary advanrtages, as well. The Spanish operation temporarily strengthened the Comintern and provided enhanced facilities for Soviet espionage. It also offered a training and testing ground for Soviet weapons and tactics, with the result Soviet military leaders studied the military experience of the Spanish war much more extensively than the Italians or the Germans, though, unlike the Germans, they sometimes drew the wrong conclusions.
The problem was that Soviet intervention made Mussolini (especially) and also Hitler more determined than ever to maintain and even to increase their assistance to Franco, while from the middle of 1937 the whole operation became increasingly complicated for Stalin. In July 1937 the Sino-Japanese war began. Some months earlier Chiang Kai-shek (nowadays more commonly known as Jiang Jieshi) had been forced to call a halt to the Chinese civil war against communism, and thus was transformed from the category of «fascist» (enjoying important if transitory relations with theThird Reich) to a member of the Popular Front. Before long the Chinese Nationalist government was receiving a slightly greater volume of military assistance than what had earlier been sent to the Spanish Republicans. Meanwhile the Mediterranean supply route to Spain was closed by the growing strength of Franco’s navy, combined with clandestine operations by the Italian submarine fleet. After the middle of 1937 Stalin began to consider the supply of the Republic increasingly costly in real terms, despite possession of the Spanish gold.
By 1938 he had begun to reduce his investment, and early in the year suggested hat the PCE withdraw altogether from the Republican government in order to make the latter more attractive to Britain and France. There seemed to be growing realization that the antifascist revolutionary struggle in Spain was somehow not likely to encourage British and French cooperation in collective security. The ultra-left interpretation of Soviet policy seems correct to the extent that, once it appeared that limited intervention was not enough to achieve victory, Stalin considered collective security more important than the triumph of the Spanish left, whose cost was becoming prohibitive. As tensions mounted in central Europe during 1938, the Soviet government began to send signals that in any new European negotiation it was willing to withdraw from Spain so long as Germany and Italy also did so. Indeed, as early as May 1937 Litvinov had told the British ambassador in Moscow that a «fascist» regime in spain was acceptable to the Soviet government so long as it remained independent and not an Axis satellite. The Spanish Republican ambassador reported that he had been given to understand that «for the USSR, the Spanish question is a subsidiary issue.» In June 1938 these signals became louder and were reported by the German ambassador, and by late summer the Comintern had begun to prepare the PCE leadership for an international deal that would include Soviet withdrawal. This never happened, since the subsequent Munich negotiations were limited to Czechoslovakia and totally excluded the Soviet Union, which was left with no opportunity to bargain over anything. Under these conditions, Stalin found no viable alternative to continued resistance in Spain. Contrary to the thesis of the non-Communist left about Soviet betrayal and abandonment, another shipment of Soviet arms went out in December 1938 and Stalin indicated willingness to send even more in March 1939, on the very eve of the Republican collapse. Soviet policy had failed, and yet was unable to develop an alternative. Even after the Republic fell, Soviet diplomacy made one last major effort to promote collective security in April 1939 through a proposed triple alliance with Britain and France, but this drew little response.
Though Spain in 1936 offered a unique revolutionary opportunity that the Soviet government could not pass up, the common interpretation that the most important consideration in Stalin’s policy was great power pragmatism is doubtless correct. It is pointless to debate whether or not prior to the summer of 1939 the Soviet dictator preferred a deal with Hitler or a collective security agreement with the western democracies. He preferred whoever would offer him a better deal. Hitler had proven so obdurate between 1933 and 1936 that a policy of antifascist alliance at that point seemed the best alternative. The Soviet dictator apparently did not grasp the extent to which the mass atrocities of the Soviet regime during the past twenty years, producing more than twenty million by no means unpublicized unnatural deaths, various military incursions and efforts to create satellite dictatorships (already in one case successful), combined with numerous subversive machinations around the world by the Comintern, including insurrections on three continents plus one archipelago, and significant terrorist operations, was simply too much for the western democracies to swallow very easily. Though Britain and France finally initiated negotiations with the Soviet Union in August 1939, they were not undertaken with any great sense of urgency, and had to be terminated abruptly when Stalin peremptorily abandon need two decades of antifascism with the signature of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

  • Comintern
  • Antifascism
  • España
  • spain

    Acerca de Stanley G. Payne

    Stanley G. Payne es catedrático emérito de Historia en la Universidad de Wisconsin-Madison (USA). Ha publicado más de treinta libros sobre Historia de España y Europa contemporánea. Entre otros; "El colapso de la República", "La Europa revolucionaria", "El camino al 18 de Julio", "Las guerras civiles que marcaron el siglo XX" y "En defensa de España" (Premio Espasa 2017). En el otoño de 2014 ha publicado "Franco, a Personal and Political Biography" (Wisconsin Press), Estados Unidos y una edición más extensa en español (Espasa), junto al historiador Jesús Palacios. Es miembro de la American Academy of Arts and Sciences y correspondiente de las RR. AA. de Historia y Ciencias Morales y Políticas de España. Ha sido codirector del Journal of Contemporary History durante más de 15 años y es Presidente de Honor de la Sociedad de Estudios Contemporáneos (SEC) Kosmos-Polis y miembro del Consejo Editorial de la revista En 2019 la Fundación Consejo España-EEUU le distinguió con el galardón Bernardo de Gálvez.