A brief account of the revolution and its institutions in Lérida, Spain, in August-September 1936, written in 1965 by one of the former leaders of the POUM.
Workers Power in Lérida – Jordi de Gardeny 1
The history of our revolution in 1936 is an inexhaustible source of lessons, a gold mine of experiences that must be studied carefully to derive what is most interesting, taking advantage of its greatest achievements and rectifying possible errors for the future.
In this article we propose to summarize how the workers of the Lérida district seized Power, and the kinds of institutions they used to exercise that Power.
The workers of Lérida exercised all Power for several months. All resources, and all means for their use and transport, were in their hands and, as a result, they had to study, and find a solution for, every problem themselves.
The big and petty bourgeoisie were excluded from the exercise of Power, and the republican parties, the genuine representatives of the petty bourgeoisie, were totally eliminated from the public arena.
The working class, by way of its trade union organizations—the CNT, UGT, and FOUS, and its revolutionary party, the POUM—was making the decisions itself, as it saw fit, without consulting anybody.
Its seizure of Power was the logical consequence of the role it played in the fighting. The working class alone took up arms and launched the counter-offensive, it alone fought in the streets and was victorious. Once the fighting started, comrades Juan Farré and José Rodes, of the POUM, and comrade Joaquín Vila, of the UGT, went to the offices of the representatives of the Generalitat in Lérida, which had been evacuated by the fleeing republican authorities. There, they met units of the Assault Guards. After a brief statement by comrade Rodes, the Guards cheered for the Republic and resolutely took the side of the people. Rodes was immediately vested with control over the Commissariat of Public Order and Vila assumed control over the Commissariat of the Generalitat. As soon as the news reached Lérida of what had happened to the Generalitat, the people, seeing the new commissars as their real representatives, attended a massive demonstration calling for a new order to be established in the city of Lérida and in the whole district.
The main contours of the new revolutionary city were fleshed out within a few days. An array of workers committees attended to basic needs and controlled all transactions (basic needs, transport, the military, revolutionary security, etc.).
The POUM, the leading party and spur of the revolution in Lérida, sought to establish the victory of the working class on a firm foundation. It therefore convoked a meeting of the trade union organizations. A new, strong and vigorous order emerged from this historic meeting. The counties of Lérida were then constituted as solid bastions of the revolution and institutions were created that, uncoupled from the central power and from the Generalitat, underpinned and reinforced the new order.
The working class exercised its power by way of three institutions, all of which functioned independently, but whose directives were closely connected. Based on the principle that all Power emanates from the working class, the latter, by means of the committees of all the trade unions of the CNT, UGT and FOUS, together with a delegation from a single party, the POUM, constituted itself as the legislative power. Its mission was to study, and to propose solutions for, all problems.
The assembly of the trade union committees delegated executive powers to the staffs of the Commissariats of the Generalitat and Public Order and to the People’s Anti-Fascist Committee. This Committee was composed of representatives from the same trade union and political organizations that participated in the assembly. Each organization was allowed two representatives. The Committee’s mission was to implement, and enforce compliance with, the resolutions of the Assembly. The two Commissariats had their own separate responsibilities. The mission of the Commissariat of the Generalitat involved economic questions, and the mission of the Commissariat of Public Order was to ensure revolutionary security.
The Assembly of trade unions was responsible for establishing judicial order. One of its goals was to prevent people from taking advantage of the revolutionary situation to satisfy personal grudges, to carry out vengeance killings or to perform the kinds of uncontrolled actions that are inevitably detrimental to the revolution. It therefore created the Peoples Revolutionary Tribunal, composed of members of the organizations that participated in the Assembly and, recognizing the POUM as the soul of the revolution, conferred upon it the position of Public Prosecutor.
This is the power of the working class, exercised and enforced by the working class, in which all its ideologies have a voice and a vote and where all its organizations stand together in shared responsibility for its activities.
The bourgeoisie was immediately aware of the danger posed by this kind of legalization of the revolution. During the first few weeks, the petty bourgeoisie did not dare to show their faces; the republican parties of Lérida were inactive, but always on the lookout to take advantage of any favorable opportunities that might arise. Then, however, the bourgeoisie regrouped and made a series of bold attacks to put an end to the revolution. That is what it did, and we do not have anything to say about it. It performed the mission of its class: to preserve the privileges of the bourgeoisie. Yet we must mention that those who dealt the coup de grâce to the revolution in Lérida, as everywhere else, by the way, were members of one of those organizations that were nourished by the counterrevolution and created to produce discouragement and despair among the working class. This baleful role was played by the PSUC. On July 19, 1936, there were so few Stalinists in Lérida that you could have counted them on the fingers of one hand and still have had some fingers left over. The formation of the PSUC, however, allowed certain working class elements, who could not be trusted because they had always taken the side of the employers, to have their own organization. The small scale manufacturers, tradesmen and landowners who were not members of the republican parties flocked to the new party that came to defend their interests. The bourgeoisie, now that it had this new weapon in its hands, used it effectively. First, a delegation from the Government of the Generalitat of Catalonia came to Lérida to get the working class of the region to acknowledge the Generalitat’s authority and therefore to deliberately disregard the new achievements of the working class. This maneuver was a total failure. The bourgeoisie understood that the revolution in Lérida was still very strong, and it was the bourgeoisie itself that seized upon certain resolutions of the working class of Lérida and gave them an official status by publishing them in the Bulletin of the Generalitat, such as, for example, the decree creating Peoples Tribunals. As the bourgeoisie grew stronger, however, the PSUC waged a campaign against the local Committees that had supplanted the Municipal Councils. The local Committees were disbanded by decree, and the new Municipal Councils that were then formed recognized only the institutions of the old state as legitimate authorities. The Assembly of the trade unions of the Lérida region, once the working class was deprived of its main stronghold, was incapable of resisting the attacks of its enemies and disappeared. This feat of the bourgeoisie was topped off by the barbarous repression directed against the POUM. The bourgeoisie understood quite well the role played by our Party in the revolution. In order to squelch the unrest of the working class, the bourgeoisie had to make the most genuine representative of the working class disappear: the POUM.
Translated in June 2016 from the Spanish text obtained from the website of the Fundación Andreu Nin, from its online edition for September 2003.
- 1 Originally published in No. 153 of La Batalla (December 1965). Jordi de Gardeny is a pseudonym used by Josep Caberol, a leading figure of the POUM in Lérida and a member, along with Josep Rodes, in Lérida’s Revolutionary Committee.