Yesterday (Monday 5th Oct) marked the 75th anniversary of the
Asturian Commune. The mining and industrial region of Asturias in Spain
witnessed one of the key revolutions of the 20th century. We want to
bring to the attention of our readers an article by Ramon Samblas written in 2004 for the www.marxist.com website and Socialist Appeal. For a more general analysis of the Spanish Revolution read Ted Grant’s The Spanish Revolution 1931-37.
70 years ago, the mining and industrial region of Asturias in Spain
witnessed one of the most fascinating revolutions in the history of the
20th century. During the course of 15 days men and women fought to
establish a new society free of exploitation and ruled by the
principles of workers’ democracy. This was the beginning of the
On April 12, 1931 the Spanish masses voted massively for Socialist
and Republican candidates in local elections that took place throughout
the country. One of the main features of these elections was the high turn
out. Two days later, on April 14, the hated Monarchist regime
collapsed, the king was forced to flee the country and Spain became a
The masses were seeking to end centuries of exploitation,
cultural backwardness and the influence of the almighty Catholic Church
in the economic and social affairs of the country. The bourgeois-democratic programme of land reform, development of industry,
the separation of the church from state affairs and the promises of
decent education and healthcare for all filled the Spanish peasants and
workers with hope. This situation opened up a period of
Socialist-Republican coalition governments and hope for the
historically oppressed masses in Spain.
However, by 1934 the bourgeois-democratic republic had shattered the
early democratic illusions and hopes of a big layer of the working
class and peasants. Three years after the proclamation of the
Republic, the working class was beginning to see that this Republic had
not solved any of the problems they faced. In the elections that took
place on November 19th, 1933, the workers massively abstained, and
together with manoeuvres of the bosses a shift to the right in
parliament took place. Lerroux’s Radical Party emerged as the winner,
but without an absolute majority. This meant they needed the support of
the CEDA, a far right bourgeois party. The CEDA was a far right party,
which represented landowners, “caciques” (direct political
representatives of the landowners in the countryside), army officers
and the bosses.
The situation in Spain became one of profound instability, which ran
through every section of the country, beginning at the top. One of the
main features of political life became the permanent crisis in the
cabinet. In the space of two years the cabinet changed 6 times, but the
Radical party (a bourgeois party which used a left rhetoric) was a
permanent feature of all these cabinets.
Another permanent feature of this period was repression. The
Republican-Radical government used laws that had been passed by the
Socialists when they had been in office (in coalition with bourgeois
Republican parties) against the very same Socialist Party! Between
November 1933 and September 1934 more than 100 issues of “El Socialist”
were sequestered. Prior to the 1934 uprising 12,000 workers were in
prison. The Socialist militias were banned and disarmed. The funds of
the trade unions were also sequestered. It was a cruel irony for the
Socialists; they were prosecuted with the same laws they themselves had
passed against, “wreckers and enemies of the Republic”.
It was becoming increasingly clear to the mass of workers that the
Republic could not fulfil their hopes and demands for a better life.
Experience had dashed their illusions in just three years. The
impotence of parliamentarism in the face of such a severe crisis of
capitalism was becoming increasingly evident.
The struggle against fascism and the impact on the workers’ organisations
This period was one of Revolution and Counterrevolution across the
whole of Europe. The 1929 crash had pushed this process even further.
Unfortunately, the Social democratic leadership, and the ultra-left and
sectarian policies pursued by the Communist parties, had led these
revolutions to bloody defeats and the triumph of Fascist and other
reactionary regimes. In 1933 Hitler had taken power in Germany. The
most organised working class in Europe had suffered a terrible defeat.
A similar situation unfolded in Austria. Years before, the Italian
working class had been crushed under the jackboot of Fascism.
The defeat suffered by the German and Austrian working class alerted
the rest of the European proletariat – especially the Spanish – to the
dangers of Fascism. Among the rank and file of all the workers’ parties
and trade unions a feeling of unity sprang up. Here we saw in practice
an example of how the working class, when it feels the need to
struggle, rejects splits and divisions as a general rule. The Spanish
proletariat was determined to defeat Fascism. They did not want to go
through the same experience as their German comrades.
The situation across Europe had the effect of pushing the parties of
the Second International to the left. This shift to the left was
initiated by the growth of the left wing within the PSOE (Spanish
Socialist Party). Largo Caballero and his supporters within the UGT
(Socialist trade union federation) and in the Socialist Youth even
stated they were in favour of the preparation of the proletarian
revolution. Even Prieto (identified with the moderate wing of the
party) stated in Las Cortes (the Spanish parliament) that he was
committed to preventing, by whatever means necessary – including an
armed uprising – a fascist regime coming to power. The pressure of the
masses on their leaders was pushing them further and further to the
Largo Caballero illustrated the mood developing amongst the rank and
file of the workers’ parties. He had been a Minister of Labour during
the Primo de Rivera dictatorship (1924-1930). In spite of that, in the
1930s his shift to the left was such that he became known as the
“Spanish Lenin”. However, the PSOE leaders were far from being Marxists
or Leninists. They replaced their earlier parliamentary cretinism with
an increasingly ultra-left policy. They suddenly declared they were no
longer interested in “bourgeois politics” anymore. Having abandoned the
idea of changing society slowly through parliamentary means, they now
failed to grasp the role that the platforms provided by the system
could play in the fight against capitalism.
The Revolutionary Workers’ Alliance
At the same time as a wide layer of the PSOE ranks was shifting to
the left a new phenomenon, the Revolutionary Workers’ Alliance (RWA),
was springing up all over the country. Its aim was to give expression
to the deep-rooted feeling of unity among the proletariat. In October
1933 the BOC (Peasants’ and Workers’ Block) and the Catalan federation
of the PSOE organised a rally appealing for the formation of a Workers’
Later on, after the defeat suffered by the left-wing parties in the
November general election and the failure of the last Anarchist
uprising promoted by the FAI, a Revolutionary Workers’ Alliance was
created in Barcelona. The original committee consisted of the BOC, UGT,
PSOE (Catalan federation), FSL, Communist Left, USC (Catalan Socialist
Union), Unio de Rabassaires (Catalan small and medium landowners’
union), trade unions expelled from the CNT (controlled by the BOC) and
the dissident trade unions within the CNT gathered around Angel Pestana.
The Unio de Rabassaires and the USC withdrew from the Workers’
Alliance. The fact that both were giving support to the bourgeois
Companys government quite quickly brought them into conflict with the
original spirit of the Workers’ Alliance, which was that of a workers’
The first practical test for the Workers’ Alliance took place on
March 13, 1934. The Workers’ Alliance called for a strike against the
increasing influence of reaction in the central government. However,
the strike was called without appealing to the CNT (Anarchist trade
union federation). The CNT organised half of the unionised working
class in Spain at the time. The adventurism of the Workers’ Alliance
leaders and the sectarianism of the CNT leaders (especially in
Catalonia) prepared the ground for the defeat of that strike,
particularly in Barcelona. In general, the Workers’ Alliance failed to
be a real united front against Fascism.
The sponsors of the Alliance, the Communist Left led by Andreu Nin
and the BOC by Joaquin Maurin, never tried to unite the workers’
organisations at rank and file level. They always sought unity from the
top. This bureaucratic method undermined the whole project despite the
desires and mood in favour of unity against fascism within the rank and
file of the trade unions and workers’ parties. They failed to stand for
a Leninist policy on the united front – march separately and strike
The sectarianism of the CNT leadership and the then tiny Communist
Party played a major role too. The Communist Party went so far as to
call the Workers’ Alliances “Reactionary Workers’ Alliances”. This was
in line with Stalin’s policy of the Third Period where the Socialists,
Anarchists and Trotskyists were denounced as Fascists.
Despite the opposition of the CNT to the Workers’ Alliance in
Catalonia the Asturian CNT leaders supported the idea of the Alliance
and they eventually joined it against the will of the CNT leaders in
the rest of Spain.
The explanation for the curious behaviour of the Asturian CNT is to
be found in the fact that the UGT and the CNT had almost equal forces
in Asturias. This situation had pushed the workers from the Socialist
and Anarchist trade unions to work together and fight together. For
instance, whilst the SOMA-UGT (Socialist mineworkers’ trade union)
dominated in all the pits, the majority of the metal workers were
organised in the CNT.
Historically, the Asturian labour movement had been the best
organised in Spain. The number of “People’s Houses” (social centres run
by the PSOE), Anarchist Social Centres, Cooperatives and even schools
run by the trade unions, is one example of how well organised the
Asturian proletariat was.
However, the process of drawing the CNT into the Revolutionary
Workers’ Alliance was not free from controversy and opposition within
the CNT itself. The stronghold of La Felguera controlled by the FAI
always opposed the Workers’ Alliance.
It is also important to remember the role played by the Communist
Party leadership. In the early 1930s the Communist Party had adopted
the ultra-left Stalinist idea of the “Third Period”, whereby the
Leninst tactic of the United Front was abandoned, which led them to
split the labour movement down the middle and facilitate the rise of
the fascists to power.
The mistaken policies of the Stalinist leaders led to defeats in
China (because of the Popular Front tactic), and in Germany and then
Austria (because of the sectarian “Third Period”. Through these various
zig-zags, by 1934, the Comintern had ceased to be a genuine
revolutionary International. Instead, as Trotsky explained, it had been
reduced to the role of border guard for the Stalinists in Moscow.
Later on, the Stalinists shifted to the right again and adopted the
tactic of the popular front. They changed their ultra-sectarian outlook
on the Social Democracy to one of class collaboration. Marxism explains
that ultraleftism and opportunism are two sides of the same coin. Both
policies resulted in catastrophe during the course of the Spanish
Revolution. In Asturias, on the eve of the uprising, the PCE (Communist
party) leadership dropped their definition of the Workers’ Alliance as
the “live nerve of counterrevolution” and instead applied to join it!
The pressure of events, and from their own rank and file, was becoming
too much for them to resist.
From the General Strike to the Revolution
By the end of September the crisis was so serious that the
Radical-Republican cabinet headed by Samper collapsed and in the early
October days, Alcala Zamora (the president of the Republic) called on
Lerroux to appoint a new government.
The ruling class did not have a real way out. There was also
mounting anxiety and tension amongst the working class. Everybody was
waiting to see whether Lerroux would give any ministries to the CEDA.
The working class regarded the entry of CEDA into the new government as
the first step towards Fascism in Spain. The German experience was
fresh in their minds. On October 3, Lerroux appointed three CEDA
ministers. Six hours later the UGT and the Workers’ Alliances called a
Despite the shortcomings of the leadership – their failure to call
on workers to occupy factories and peasants to seize land, and the lack
of real soviets and clarity – the working class threw themselves into
In the end the general strike was doomed by the lack of
participation of the workers of some key sectors of the economy
organised by the CNT, such as the railways. This allowed the
transportation of ammunition and troops to crush the protest. The
workers did not receive arms until hours after the public
appeal for the general strike. The Army used this time to arrest
workers and disband militias. But, the workers resisted with the
general strike going on for days and industry and trade were paralysed.
In spite of the limitations of its leadership, when the working class
starts to fight with such determination, it cannot be easily stopped. A
ferocious struggle ensued. However, in the end, the failure of the
leaders was decisive and the movement was defeated.
The failure of that movement was analysed by Leon Trotsky. In his article The consequence of parliamentary reformism, in which he stated:
“The Socialist Party, like the Russian Social Revolutionaries and
Mensheviks, shared power with the republican bourgeoisie to prevent the
workers and peasants from carrying the revolution to its conclusion.
For two years the Socialists in power helped the bourgeoisie
disembarrass itself of the masses by crumbs of national, social, and
agrarian reforms. Against the most revolutionary strata of the people,
the Socialists used repression (…). When the Socialist Party was
sufficiently compromised, the bourgeoisie drove it from power and took
over the offensive on the whole front. The Socialist Party had to
defend itself under the most unfavourable conditions, which had been
prepared for it by its own policy”.
Trotsky pointed out that as a result of the previous parliamentary
cretinism of the Socialist Party, anarcho-syndicalism was strengthened
as a tendency within the labour movement and it drew towards itself the
best militant layers of the proletariat.
Nevertheless the role of the Anarchist leadership was as pernicious
as the social democratic leadership. They refused to support the
insurrection led by the Socialists. The insurrection is a decisive
moment, not a game, and it must be skilfully used and prepared.
Again Leon Trotsky: “Marxism is quite far from the thought that
armed struggle is the only revolutionary method, or a panacea good
under all conditions. Marxism in general knows no fetishes, neither
parliamentary nor insurrectional. There is a time and place for
The worst betrayal of the movement took place in Catalonia. Lluis
Companys (Catalan Premier) feared the workers more than the troops sent
by the Republican government. He used the divisions within the labour
movement in Catalonia (especially in Barcelona) to proclaim the “Estat
Catala” (Catalan state). The President of the Generalitat appealed to
the Catalan people to calm them down. When the troops arrived from
Madrid and surrounded Barcelona, he just surrendered without
resistance. Of course, this “Estat Catala” did not challenge private
property nor the current social establishment. The Catalan bourgeoisie
was attempting to divert the attention of the masses through this
manoeuvre. Leaving the leadership of the struggle in the hands of the
petty bourgeoisie represented by the ERC (Catalan Republican Left) and
the Unio de Rabassaires proved to be a grave mistake.
This manoeuvre of the Catalan petty bourgeoisie could have been
overcome, but the CNT leadership dismissed the general strike as
“political” and did not join the movement. In a decisive moment, the
CNT that organised the majority of the Barcelona proletariat provided
no leadership. As dialectics explains, nature abhors a vacuum. This
vacuum was filled by the petty bourgeoisie led by Companys who did not
hesitate to betray the movement. In spite of this the Madrid government
“rewarded” Lluis Companys by jailing him and sentencing him to death,
which was later commuted. With the failure of the insurrection in
Catalonia the struggle in the rest of the country was seriously
UHP! (Proletarian brothers and sisters unite!)
In Asturias, however the situation was completely different. Here
the General Strike took the form of an armed uprising. Only hours after
the armed uprising began important mining areas like Mieres were under
the control of the revolutionary workers. In two days the revolutionary
workers took over the Oviedo council, the Asturian capital. The
Workers’ Alliance had been established more than a year earlier and was
a real united front.
As explained before, the pressure of the workers on the leadership
in Asturias made them unite whether they wanted to or not. For
instance, the PCE was forced to join the Workers’ Alliance despite the
sectarian and ultra-left position of the leadership on this question.
The mineworkers led by Gonzalez Pena and Grossi were clearing the way
ahead with barrels of dynamite due to the lack of arms and ammunition.
The revolutionary Asturian proletariat was making up for the lack of
means and experience with their class instinct and creativity.
While the workers and peasants were establishing a new order called
the Commune, the institutions of the capitalist system were collapsing.
The Civil Guards and the Assault Guards were fleeing from the barracks.
When they saw the armed workers, some of them even joined the
proletarian army. The case of lieutenant Torrens is one of the most
famous. He surrendered his squad of Civil Guards and joined the workers
as a military advisor.
The Workers’ Alliances and the bodies which emerged from them (like
the Revolutionary Councils) during the revolution, acted as real
soviets. Despite the failure of those organisations in the rest of the
country, in Asturias they led the revolution.
During the 15 days of the Asturian Commune, the Revolutionary
Councils seized land, occupied factories, put the enemies of the
working class on trial through the Revolutionary Tribunals (a right
that reaction never conceded to the Asturian workers following the
repression of the Commune), established Workers’ Democracy and held off
the Moorish troops and the Legion, the two most reactionary bodies of
the Spanish army.
In spite of the courage of the Asturian masses the movement faced
serious problems. On the one hand the insurrection was isolated to
Asturias. This made it easier for reaction to defeat it. But the lack
of coordination of the different areas where the uprising was taking
place also made it very difficult for the militias to overcome their
lack of ammunition and weapons.
The failure of the insurrection in the rest of the country made it
possible for the Republican government to focus their efforts on
smashing the Asturian Commune. It became a common saying that if three
Asturian Communes had taken place, the Revolution would have been
successful throughout the country. Instead of the greatest of victories
there was the most terrible of defeats.
Repression was horrific. The Republican Army, led by Franco, did not
hesitate to use aerial bombing against the civil population. They also
sent thousands of troops to kill, rape and torture women and children.
These are the brutal methods that the ruling class used to crush the
Asturian uprising. They could not allow the workers and peasants to
decide their own fate. There are no exact figures, but different
sources calculate the numbers killed as 2000-4000. The people in jail
were counted in tens of thousands.
Once again, the lack of a clear programme and tactics proved to be a
disaster and the working class paid for it. If a genuine Bolshevik
leadership in the Socialist and Communist party and the trade unions
(both anarcho-syndicalist and Socialist) had led the revolution
throughout the country, the result would have been substantially
But the sacrifice of the Asturian workers was not completely in
vain. They did prevent the rise of Fascism through parliamentary means.
The ruling class could only impose its open dictatorship after a 3 year
long civil war in which the Spanish workers fought like lions despite
being led by lambs.
We wish to pay homage to the struggle of these men and women who
bravely fought for a better world. They showed to the workers and
peasants of the entire world that a society without classes is
possible. Once again we reclaim the motto of the Asturian Commune
against capitalism, Unios Hermanos Proletarios! (Proletarian Brothers
and Sisters Unite!) UHP!
(Article first published in 2004)