Asturias, October 1934
This week marks the 80th anniversary of the miners’ strike in the northern Spanish province of Asturias, which represented the first attempt to resist fascism in Spain specifically and in Europe generally. The incident played out in miniature themes that would be repeated over and over in Spain and elsewhere in Europe as reactionary forces used much the same script and the response of the Left followed a predictably tragic pattern.
Briefly stated, in April 1931 the profoundly conservative country of Spain woke up a republic after King Alfonso XIII fled the country following municipal elections that returned a wave of republican candidates to office. The election was a sharp rebuke to the seven-year rule of military dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. The Depression had proved beyond Primo de Rivera’s ability to manage: Much of the country was in the midst of crushing poverty, but the conservatives blamed the government for too much spending on infrastructure and condemned the budget deficits that resulted. Student uprisings portrayed Alfonso as Primo de Rivera’s lap dog. Shocked, the king began distancing himself from the dictator. What caused the latter’s resignation, however, was the military’s loss of confidence in him. Primo de Rivera had been manipulating promotions in a way that alienated key blocks. In January 1930 the army signaled its lack of support, and Primo de Rivera resigned. Rather than placate the population, the resignation galvanized the anti-monarchical sentiment. Even Alfonso could not deny after the April 4, 1931 election that the worm had turned against him. Great popular demonstrations celebrating the landslide in favor of the republican coalition greeted the event. On April 14, the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed.
Rightly fearing that its favored position was about to be undermined, the Church signaled its disapproval of events. In May Bishop Gomá of the archdiocese of Tarragona, a right-wing proponent of the “Confessional State” (who would later be rewarded with the office Cardinal for his work in defending the establishment of the Church) issued a pastoral letter condemning the republic and avowing outright monarchical principles. Public outrage led to a rash of church burnings in Madrid, Andalusia and Valencia. Although the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (“CNT”), the most radical of the union organizations, advised against violence, it remained on guard of the possible co-option of government by conservative forces. An interim government was formed, which set elections for June for a constitutional assembly. By December a new constitution was framed. The Constitution established a variety of liberal principles including freedom of speech and assembly. It responded to popular discontent over the Church’s entrenched and reactionary role in public life by disestablishing it and barring its role in public education. Resistance by the Church resulted in predictable public reaction, and churches were set aflame from time to time over the next several years. Nonetheless, the political party that represented the Church, the Acción Nacional, later renamed the Acción Popular, remained overtly anti-republican, expressly sought a return to the monarchy and aligned itself with the most notoriously right-wing political elements of Spain.
Great public expectations were invested in the Republic. In addition to a religious establishment, Spain still retained feudal privileges for the aristocracy. Monopolies prevailed. Wealth was highly concentrated. Over half of land was held by 0.2% of the population, while most farm workers (a group representing about 20% of the population) lived in dire poverty. Large fortunes were controlled by old nobles and new industrialists, the former seen as debauched leeches and the latter as rapacious predators by the popular parties. For the first two years the Congress of Deputies (the new unicameral legislature) enacted liberal social and political reforms: women were granted the suffrage, divorce was legalized, the army was reduced and even a mild agrarian land reform law was enacted. But although the constitution provided means by which certain monopolies could be nationalized (banks, railroads and the like), no such steps were taken. Prime Minister Manuel Azaña cashiered the worst of the Catholic army officers and expanded secular schools but temporized on any fundamental reforms. CNT distrust of the liberal parties proved well-founded when the center right parties came to power in 1933.
Although the Radical Party had once been anti-monarchical and indeed originally part of the coalition to overturn the monarchy and although it participated in the interim government following Alfonso’s escape from Spain, in the Congress of Deputies it proved to be a center-right party. Even though Manuel Azaña was at best mildly republican, the Radical Party became government’s chief opposition party. In the 1933 elections (one seen as corrupt by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations) a coalition of conservatives won the largest number of seats and the Radical Party was given the right to attempt to form a government, but it had no majority. It tried three times: in November 1933, April 1934 and October 1934. All of which failed.
The Radical Party was founded in 1909 and still led in 1933 by Alejandro Lerroux, who was a man of no fixed principles. As the centrist Foreign Affairs noted in January 1935, Lerroux was “dominated by senile vanity and ambition” and “it was all the same whether it was a republic or a more or less disguised monarchy, provided only he were in power.” After three governments were rejected by the Congress (in one of which he himself was proposed as the prime minister), Lerroux decided to reach out to a coalition partner that everyone knew was toxic—the Acción Popular.
The Acción Popular Party was led by reactionary ideologue and ardent fundamentalist Catholic Gil-Robles. Gil-Robles was secretary of the Catholic-Agrarian National Confederation during the dictatorship of Primo Rivera. He joined the writing council of El Debate, a very conservative clerical journal, which was conducted in a modern, racy, popular style. (It was the first Spanish newspaper with a sports section, for example.) From the very beginning of the Second Republic Acción Popular (under its original name Acción Nacional ) (and El Debate as its mouth-piece) made no attempt to disguise its anti-Republican programme. It represented the interests of the Spanish church and was funded by the right-wing money. In 1931 it voted against the adoption of the Constitution and made no bones about accommodating republicanism. It represented everything that liberals and leftist groups feared: naked, iron-fisted reaction. And 1934 was a year in which liberals and leftists had good reason to fear the forces of reaction. In Austria, for example, the fascist government, long in alliance with Mussolini, began a crack-down on the Social Democratic Party and suspended basic civil liberties and created a one-party state by a new constitution.
Before the 1933 elections Gil-Robles formed the Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (the Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right “CEDA”) as something of an umbrella group for conservative, right-wing and anti-republican interests. The coalition gained a plurality of votes, but President Alcalá-Zamora hesitated to give Gil-Robles the chance to form a coalition. Alcalá-Zamora himself was a lawyer and conservative. He was profoundly Catholic and had no great attachment to republicanism. But he knew that the country was a tinder box and Gil-Robles was a match. So the task was given to Lerroux. By summer 1934 Lerroux was so frustrated that he decided to do what no other republican party would consider—make Acción Popular a coalition partner. He obtained a vow from Gil-Robles to respect the republican constitution, probably a fig demanded by Alcalá-Zamora, and then agreed to give three portfolios to Acción Popular members. Gil-Robles had undoubtedly persuaded Lerroux that the threat of Socialists in Congress (that such action would result in a national uprising) was a bluff or at least would result in at most a transitory protest and then everyone would accept the inevitable. El Debate said so in an editorial on October 3. Even Alcalá-Zamora was convinced. When a banker warned against allowing Acción Popular participation because of the threat of an uprising, Alcalá-Zamora said: “Who will call it? The Socialists? They never make revolutions.” So the deed was done on October 4.
The President proved prophetic. None of the national republican parties lifted a finger, other than distancing themselves from government. The matter was left to a coalition of local radical working class groups.
Back in March 1934, as a result of the election of right-wingers in the November polls, a Workers’ Alliance was formed. The two labor groups, the CNT (largely anarcho-syndicalists) and the Unión General de Trabajadores (“UGT,” the trade unionists), had long concluded that radical action was necessary. After the November election even the socialists, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (“PSOE”), were talking about insurrection, although as it later turned out, this talk was largely a sop to their constituents. On March 28, 1934, despite the wariness of the CNT, a Workers’ Alliance was formed among these three parties as the Bloc Obrer i Camperol (BOC). The Federación Anarquista Ibérica (“FAI,” the Iberian Anarchist Federation), however, refused to join, not believing that any of the parties would follow through on their commitments. The concept behind the alliance was to organize local revolutionary committees, which would retain independence but coordinate with the national coordinating group. The hope was to initiate strikes and other insurrections much like the successful ones called by FAI in 1933. In December 1933 the CNT had also called a strike which resulted in attacks on right-wing forces around the country. In response Acción Popular held a rally in Covadonga, the place sacred to Catholic reactionaries because it was where the expulsion of the Moors was first begun. The Acción Popular rally was the beginning of its organizing of paramilitary groups.
When the coalition with Acción Popular was announced on October 4, the PSOE, with the rest of the organized Left, considered it a “fascist coup.” It was now time to decide. Largo-Caballero, the head of the socialist PSOE, was far from a revolutionary. During the Primo Rivera dictatorship he came to an entente with government which permitted the UGT to exist (but not strike), and he was not constitutionally a decisive man. Nevertheless, in the crisis, according to vice secretary of the PSOE Juan Simeón Vidarte, although he was pale, his voice was steady: the comité insurreccional of the PSOE would unleash civil war.
At the same time in Catalonia, the local government used the event to pull the trigger on its long planned goal of declaring independence. In Madrid, the government was more interested in responding to the workers. Under the prodding of Gil-Robles, the Guardia civil was brought out to break the strike, and the government declared a state of siege. In Madrid, the police fired on protesters, and the streets were filled with uniformed men. In the face of violent repression most of the actions melted away. But in Asturias in Northern Spain the workers had prepared themselves for a real, rather than imagined, insurrection.
The miners of Asturias were the only ideologically disciplined group, and their sympathizers were a large segment of the population. Moreover, they had firmly united with the UGT, which was whole-heartedly behind insurrection rather than “reform.” When the event came, the FAI and eventually the small group of local communists joined the uprising.
On October 5, the barracks of the Guardia civil throughout the villages of Asturias were approached, and the workers demanded that they surrender. When they balked, the workers attacked and subdued them. Revolutionary groups were set up, and an attack on Olviedo, the provincial capital, was planned. On October 6, Olviedo was taken, the “Model Prison” there was opened, but although it contained a cache of weapons, it had no ammunition.
The general government on the recommendation of Gil-Robles, sought the advice of Generals Manuel Goded and Francisco Franco, both of whom were experienced in brutal counterinsurgency: Goded had fought in the Rif War against the Morocco insurgents and Franco had put down a strike in Asturias in 1917. Both agreed that the regular army was unreliable. They recommended a combination of the Guardia civil, the Spanish foreign legion, and colonial troops of Morocco. Ironically, the right wing movement which celebrated the Expulsion at Covadonga would now depend on the Moors and mercenaries to save Christendom. The 25,000 foreign troops were soon landed and their ferocity, legendary in Africa, was unleashed. I won’t go into detail on individual battles, except for two observations. First, the efficiency of the Guardia civil was debunked. Workers had taken them on and won. Second, the CNT fear of bourgeois liberal parties in the crunch proved true. When workers in Catalan supported the declaration of independence (evidently thinking it would bring revolutionary improvement in its wake) the Catalan government balked at arming them and the “Catalonia Republic” collapsed in 10 hours. It didn’t take resort to Engels (who had shown how German liberals acted in similar circumstances in 1849), because Foreign Affairs saw the historical verity plainly:
“What history has frequently demonstrated was proved once again, namely, that a petty bourgeois party, placed between the power of the upper middle classes who control the state, and the mass of the class-conscious workers, is ineffective in revolution and always surrenders to the strongest side.”
In the end the miners and civilians suffered at least 3,100 casualties including 1,100 dead. The government took between 30,000 and 45,000 prisoners, including Largo Caballero (who from the experience would gain the prestige that would allow him to become Prime Minister in the crucial years of 1936-37). There would be large-scale dislocations of insurgent families and sympathizers. And while some pockets held out for several months, ultimately the insurrections was snuffed out.
Franco of course benefitted by having a dry run for the maneuver he would use two years later to roll up the entire country. Then it would be the Spanish Government itself that sought assistance from bourgeois governments on the plea that republicanism was facing down fascism. Once again liberal bourgeois democracy turned a deaf ear. Throughout Europe, the Popular Front would replay the same sad denouement that the Workers’ Alliance did in Spain. You can develop your own analogies to other aspects of this story for our own time.
Despite the brutal defeat and repression, workers took heart from the event. They were not crushed by valor or by conviction, but only by lack of preparation and matériel. Next time it would be different. They all knew this.
For those interested in hearing from participants (or closely interested contemporaries), the following documents are available:
- La Revolución de Octubre 1934 by anarchist and journalist José Muñoz Congost was last month digitized by ting Cultural de Estudios Sociales de Melbourne y Acracia Publications, a group related to Spanish emigrants to Australia, and is available as a PDF here.
- A fascinating collection of contemporary English trade union documents (pamphlets, correspondence and reports) in the collection of University of Warwick have been digitized and can be seen here.
- The text of the Workers’ Alliance can be found here.
- An interesting Spanish TV documentary entitled “Asturias, La Ultima Revolución Obrera” can be viewed on Youtube here.