Chapter 4: The "Popular Front"

4

The “Popular Front”

It cannot be denied that the Spanish people continued to pay a very high price for their yearning to be free and to enjoy the fruits of liberty. The tragedy of the Asturian insurrection devastated their spirits and the voices that echoed from the prisons would tell a tale of shock and suffering. More than a thousand dead and many thousands imprisoned was the result that the Lerroux government could boast of having achieved.

The ambitious so-called leftist politicians, exploiting this sad situation, used as a rallying point, in the electoral campaign to reform the representative branch of government, freedom for the prisoners, and united under the Bolshevik slogan of “popular front”.

The bait they offered was persuasive; the prisoners demanded to be freed and the sentimental, sincere and always naive workers contributed to the victory of the leftist electoral slate. The CNT, which was anti-political due to its trade union structure, and which had led beautiful campaigns in favor of electoral abstentionism, on this occasion suspiciously changed its attitude.

Santillán, who, even though he “had not set aside certain scruples”, explained this fact—without the least trace of irony—in the following delectable paragraphs:

“With regard to the elections of February 16, 1936, we were confronted in Spain with one of the most serious moments of our existence as a movement. We had the key to the future in our hand. But anti-electoral propaganda had become a routine that was hard to overcome. Principles and tactics were capriciously invoked. And everyone remembered the anti-electoral campaign of November 1933, the most intense such campaign ever. They were insistently demanding a repetition, almost a carbon copy. The situation, however, was clear. If we opted for electoral abstention, as we had always done before, the victory of the right would have been inevitable. The victory of the right would be fascism with a legal and popular sanction.

“There were many militants who did not want to understand this and raised a clamor against our view. Several extremely tense weeks followed. If the responsibility was not so great, we would have left the field open to the demagogues who suddenly transformed themselves into the fierce guardians of principles and sought to teach us lessons about Revolution and Anarchy. We resisted. Under no circumstances could we hand over power to the right, to the forces of Gil Robles, by abstaining. Nor was it possible, because the lack of understanding would be even greater, to openly advocate participation in the elections. It would have been interpreted as a defection from our principles. Fortunately, the good instincts of the broad masses came to our aid. We focused on the liberation of the prisoners and, in our press, we set forth the choices, and carried out a reasonable propaganda campaign that prevented abstention on the scale of 1933 and consequently made the victory of the republican left possible.”

No commentaries are necessary with regard to this point, for Santillán has spoken quite clearly. He does not understand what he does not want.

Disappointment did not take long to arrive. While some prisoners were released, other people were imprisoned, because the social problem continued to become more explosive as the workers organized for the conquest of economic improvements that Spanish capitalism refused to concede.

The slogan of the “Popular Front” government was: “First reinforce the republic; then concessions.” This slogan was taken so seriously that strikes were declared to be crimes of lèse majesté and the leftists sought to settle strikes led by the CNT in courts of arbitration. The terrible ordeal of the members of the CNT and the FAI continued. The reaction was fierce and bloody.

While the revolutionary workers were being persecuted with ferocious rage, the landowners, the clergy and the disgruntled military officers were allowed, logically, in the environment of conspiracy in which they lived, to work in the open light of day in preparation for the moment when they would attempt to seize power. So visible were the maneuvers of the reactionaries that the CNT made them public in an announcement distributed on February 14, 1936, whose crucial paragraphs we reproduce below:

“… With each passing day the suspicion that right-wing elements are prepared to launch a military uprising becomes more widespread. It is even a matter of public knowledge, now that left wing newspapers are constantly publishing articles warning about machinations that are ostensibly secret, but are in reality shameless and open, carried out by the reactionary officers in the barracks and in the civil and ecclesiastical circles of the counterrevolution.

“Morocco appears to be the main focal point and epicenter of the conspiracy. Whether or not an insurrection takes place is contingent on the results of the elections. The planned preventive action will be implemented if the left wins the elections.”

“We, who do not defend the republic, but who relentlessly fight against fascism, will contribute all the forces at our disposal in order to defeat the historical executioners of the Spanish proletariat.”

“In addition, we do not hesitate to recommend that, wherever the legions of tyranny may appear, that you unhesitatingly reach an agreement with the antifascist sectors by energetically attempting to ensure that the defensive preparations of the masses should follow the paths of the real social revolution, under the auspices of libertarian communism.

“Once more: Keep your eyes open, comrades! It is better to take courageous measures to be safe, even if they are mistaken, than to be sorry due to negligence.—The National Committee.”

“Everyone must be vigilant. If the conspirators light the fire we must pursue the acts of opposition to their maximum consequences without allowing the liberal bourgeoisie and their Marxist allies to stop the course of events should the fascist revolt be utterly suppressed in its very beginnings. If, to the contrary, the struggle is a hard one, such a recommendation would be superfluous, because no one would stop until one of the contending powers is eliminated, and over the course of the people’s victory their democratic illusions would be dispelled; if, on the other hand, the people are defeated, the dictatorial nightmare will annihilate us. Once someone seriously opens up hostilities, democracy will perish between two fires, because it is irrelevant and has no place on the field of battle: either fascism or social revolution. Defeat of the former is a duty incumbent upon the whole proletariat and all freedom-lovers, weapons in hand: that the revolution should be social and libertarian ought to be the most profound preoccupation of members of the Confederation. It depends upon our intelligence, and the unity of our thought and our action, whether or not we will be the most authoritative inspiration for the masses and that they will put into practice modes of sociability that conform to the spirit of libertarian ideas, and whether these ideas will be the impregnable defensive shield against the authoritarian instincts of the whites and the reds.

“Once more: Keep your eyes open, comrades! It is better to take courageous measures to be safe, even if they are mistaken, than to be sorry due to negligence.”

The National Committee.

***

The politicians of the “Popular Front” were not interested in the activities of the reactionaries. Out of cowardice they would not dare even to order violent measures against the military conspirators; the latter, increasingly more arrogant, made use of criminal elements to provoke disorders, attacks and premeditated crimes. The Spanish public lived in a state of fear and shock.

The workers of the CNT continued to plan valiant strike movements and the leftist ministers continued to attempt to destroy the organization.

It was possible to observe, in the prelude to the military uprising, spectacles such as the one a confederal newspaper described, which took place in Madrid, during the course of a construction workers strike: while the workers enrolled in the UGT were trying to return to work, in accordance with orders issued by the socialist ministers, the workers who were members of the CNT stood with crossed arms in front of the construction sites, in protest against this betrayal.