The Case for the Government


THOSE who traveled through Spain with understanding and knowledge during the first half of 1936 saw everywhere signs of profound restlessness and, among the peasants and workers, of a great hope.

A country where perhaps a million people are too poor ever to taste meat, where those responsible for social culture have failed so disastrously that the majority of the population is illiterate, where mile after mile of potentially fertile land has gone out of cultivation because the mighty landowners cannot and will not use it, where fantastic contrasts between poverty and wealth are notorious — this country had for the first time in generations elected a government pledged to attack the privileged forces responsible.

It was a formidable task. It amounted to a mandate to bring about as soon as possible a process which in England, for example, had taken centuries to complete.

Imagine an English government today facing the problems of the contemporary world without the background of social changes which came from the Reformation, the Puritan Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Reform period, and the Compulsory Education Act. That will give an idea of how stupendous was the task of the Popular Front Government elected in Spain in February 1936. It had to adapt feudalism to the tasks of the twentieth century, and, if possible, do so overnight.

What was this government? It was really not a ‘Popular Front Government ’ at all. It was a Centrist bourgeois government with a programme which Lord Baldwin or Mr. Hoover would regard as conservative. But its chief support lay to the Left, among the awakened masses of town and countryside. It had in its cabinet not a single Socialist, Communist, or Anarchist, but all these had lent it their vote for the time being. On the Right were its bitter enemies, the representatives of three social forces which felt themselves menaced — the feudal landlords, the feudal Army, and the feudal Church.

What chance had such a government of governing? We know now that from the beginning the forces of the Right had determined to sabotage it, although their only justification for doing so, an excuse since reiterated ad nauseam, is that they had to forestall, by fair means or foul, an inevitable revolt from the Left. The logic of the situation refutes them.

On the very eve of the tragedy I had a long talk with the Socialist leader, Largo Caballero. ‘ Will you be forced into revolutionary action?’ I asked him.

‘Why should we?’ he replied. ‘From revolution we have nothing to gain and everything to lose. We support the present government and its programme. If it fails, and we think it will, we shall become the government by strictly legal and constitutional succession. Our vote and our strength are growing.’

Nobody can deny the truth of that statement. With a government under their control and with a growing political strength, what possible inducement was there for the Left to kick over the traces? Either the Centrist Government, supported by Left votes, would bring in the necessary minimum of reform, or a Left government would take over by legal means. This makes nonsense of the Franco plea that the military rebellion was to save Spain from a ‘Communist’ revolution.

Franco enthusiasts have another and an even weaker excuse for the blood bath that they have brought to Spain. They often try to suggest that the government they betrayed was not a legal government at all. It was, they say, a minority government unrepresentative of the country, and it owed its existence to electoral corruption. Consider the implications of such arguments.

American presidents and British governments have often been elected by a minority vote. Does that give their opponents the right to take up arms against them?

Yet the Popular Front Government of February 1936 won the election with its opponents controlling the machinery. Whatever corruption there was must have worked against the Popular Front and not in its favor.

We can sum up this minor point of which so much has been made in the words of John H. Humphreys, the leading English expert on electoral methods: ‘The Spanish Government, like the British Government, was duly elected in accordance with the existing law, fair or unfair. . . . The general conclusion on the figures available is that the two main parties or coalitions were very equally supported by the electorate, but that the balance was in favor of the Left. Certainly there was no majority for armed rebellion.’

That those who voted against the Popular Front were not all potential supporters of a military rebellion was graphically shown by the loyalty to the Government, maintained at such great cost, on the part of the Basque Catholics, whose position in the February elections was at the extreme Right. The martyrdom of Guernica and Bilbao has been their reward for loyalty given to a government, not because it was Leftist, but because it was legal.

The official apologia for Franco goes on to say that the Spanish Government was so weak that it had virtually ceased to govern and had given way to chaos; and therefore ‘something had to be done.’ Why this ‘something’ had to be the unpatriotic surrender of the countryside to Moorish, Italian, and German invaders is not immediately apparent. Perhaps a more worthy ‘something’ would have been to stop the deliberate sabotaging of law and order by the parties of the Right.

We may admit that there was disorder in Spain. Extremists on both sides tried to make government unworkable. I was there and saw how it was done. One May morning in Madrid, for example, a rumor went round that the hospitals were full of working-class children suffering from the effects of poisoned candy given them by nuns. Crowds of women attacked the government offices and had to be dispersed with hose pipes.

I asked a Socialist, ‘Who is spreading the rumor?’

‘Fascists,’ he answered, ‘trying to stir up disorder.’

I asked a Catholic the same question. ‘Anarchists,’ he answered, ‘trying to stir up disorder.’

Every day fresh stores of arms were found in Fascist houses. Several times in a week I heard young men in the crowded streets cry, ‘Long live Fascist Spain!’ and run away firing off revolvers. There were churches burned. Troublemakers were certainly everywhere. And the best help that Franco could bring to the harassed legal government was to remove all the forces of law and order from their sworn allegiance.

But it is possible to exaggerate the disorder of Spain in the earlier part of 1936. Priests and nuns could go about unmolested. Under the protection of the Popular Front Government elaborate religious festivals were held without opposition. Most political demonstrations were orderly. On May 1, 1936, I watched the great labor procession march along the Paseo del Prado hundreds of thousands strong. There was not a policeman in sight, and yet order was perfect. Over the heads of the marchers waved banners which said: ‘A disciplined proletariat is the terror of Fascism.’ Everywhere the Left organizations were striving to maintain order and to prevent the extremists from getting out of hand; and only those who know the ruthlessness with which the defeated reactionary government had attacked the workers and peasants can know how hard a task this was.

Let me give one instance of the spirit in which a Spanish reactionary retaliates against progress when progress is at his mercy. Land hunger is the great problem of Spain, and under the first governments of the Republic a few peasants were given land that had been confiscated from émigré royalists. When the reactionary Gil Robles government came to power, it not only took away the land, but it sent out the Guardia Civil to superintend the wanton hacking up of half-grown crops, which had been to the peasants a symbol of a new and happier era just dawning. To the peasants it meant that they were once more to be tied to a starving soil.

With such hates abroad, of course, there were problems of disorder unsuccessfully tackled by the new government. It was the task of the reactionaries to increase this disorder, just as it was the task of the Left parties to try to control it. The reactionaries succeeded.


What was the programme of the legally elected Centrist Government? Can it be honestly described as one of confiscation, oppression, and intolerance?

First in importance among its tasks was the problem of the land. I have, I believe, read every law of agrarian reform put forward since the Republic. Confiscation was confined to estates of royalists and other enemies of the Republic who had fled. Other landlords had to give over the land they refused to use themselves and to guarantee tenure to peasant proprietors, in return for a guaranteed rent based on their income-tax returns. Does this justify armed resistance? We can sum up the land policy of the Republic as the creation, out of large estates, of a class of peasant proprietors. The political significance of such a class is conservative and stabilizing, as southern France has shown the world. There is no excuse for calling the land policy revolutionary in the Communist sense, though it seemed revolutionary enough from the point of view of the feudal landlords.

What was the Government threatening to do to the Church that justified the calling in of Moors to save Christianity? That there could not be peace between a liberal government and the Spanish Church can be plainly shown by quoting a few lines from an authorized Spanish catechism recommended by bishops for general use: —

Q. Is every liberal government hostile to the Church?

A. Evidently, since whoever is not with Christ is against Him.

Q. How do those sin who, with their vote or influence, help the triumph of a candidate hostile to the Church?

A. Usually mortally, and are accomplices in the wicked laws, contrary to the Church, voted by their candidate.

Q. What are liberal principles?

A. National sovereignty so-called, freedom of religious cults, freedom of the press, freedom of instruction, universal morality, and other such.

Q. What consequences result from these?

A. Secular schools, impious periodicals, civil marriage, heretical churches in Catholic countries, abolition of ecclesiastical immunities, and so forth.

Q. What does the Church teach about these?

A. That they may be tolerated only for as long as they cannot be opposed without creating a worse evil.

It is not surprising that the Church that had so interpreted its political line had ceased to be the Church of the Spanish people and had become the Church of the wealthy classes. I cannot do better than quote from Father Francisco Peiró’s book, El Problema ReligiosaSocial de España, published at the beginning of 1936: —

There are persons of good faith who, influenced by the traditional phrase that Spain is a Catholic nation, refuse to believe in its dechristianization. . . .

Religion has come to appear in the eyes of the toiling masses as the patrimony of one class: the bourgeois. The conception is very simple: on one side the bourgeois, rich and religious: on the other the proletarians, poor and irreligious. ... It is no exaggeration to insist that the toiling masses have abandoned the Church because they have come to consider it the enemy of their aspirations. The religious crisis is part and parcel of the social crisis.

Father Peiró goes on to ask the cause of this apostasy. He ridicules the people who say that it is due to Communist and Anarchist agitators. It is childish, he says, to suppose that the masses are agitated for the mere pleasure of being agitated. For agitators to succeed there must be just grievances; and the hostility to the Church among Spanish workers is due to their not having obtained from the Church what they justly demanded, protection from social injustice.

Father Peiró shows by statistics that only a fraction, often less than 10 per cent, of the proletariat and peasantry still comply with the doctrinal duties of confession, church attendance, and death with the Church sacraments. Now the Centrist Spanish Government, supported by the classes who thus felt themselves deserted by the Church, had a straightforward programme with regard to religion — namely, to regulate the relationship of Church and State along the same sort of principles as have existed for generations in England or America. It was determined to disassociate education and clericalism, to maintain precisely those liberal institutions condemned in the catechism quoted, and to curb the political activity of religious orders and of the hierarchy.

It was because of this programme, and not because Anarchists (or sometimes Fascist agents provocateurs) burned down churches, that the Clerical forces aided Franco and applauded the coming of the Moors and German enthusiasts for Christianity.

We can quote that voice crying in the wilderness, Prebendary Carles Cardó, canon of Barcelona, who wrote in March 1936 an article in the Catalan Catholic review, La Paraula Cristiana, in which he explained from the Catholic point of view why the Catholic party had been so completely defeated in the February elections. He gives example after example of the appalling social injustice of the Gil Robles-Lerroux government during its two years of rule, and puts thus the dilemma of any true Spanish Catholic who has a feeling for social justice: ‘Christ in our country is cut in two: the Right parties have His Truth; the Left parties have His Justice. Truth without Justice is tyranny; Justice without Truth is Anarchy.’ If anarchy came to Spain when the forces responsible for law and order deserted, the blame lies with those parties who were content with using the tyranny which comes from ‘Truth without Justice.’


Why were the Centrist Government and its Left supporters doomed to the enmity, not merely of the feudal landlords and the feudal Church, but of the military caste? Because it was their programme to change the relationship between the military and the State into one somewhat more like that which we insist upon in England or America. The time was gone when the people of Spain would tolerate a Prætorian Guard holding the fate of government in its hands. The Popular Front Government knew that the majority of the officer class was not only hostile to it but hostile to the Republic, and it took steps to build up an armed force, a Republican Guard on whose loyalty it could rely. This meant the doom of militarist domination. It is not surprising that the officer class resented this, but it is surprising that Englishmen and Americans should be found to support that class in Spain when it rose disloyally against an adjustment which our ancestors achieved for us, and which we would defend to the last in our own countries.

That is the case for the Spanish Government as it stood in July 1936 — a legally elected, democratic government trying against great odds to institute the type of social-economic reform that has been part of our birthright in England or America for centuries; faced, moreover, by three threatened privileged groups determined to make its position untenable. Strong as the case was then, after the events of the last eighteen months it is immeasurably stronger.

Franco and his supporters never had a de jure case; by illegal rebellion they threw all their hopes into creating one de facto. And they have signally failed. The Spanish Government may still lose, but Franco can never win. The alternatives to-day are a Spanish victory or an Italian-German victory.

We cannot hope to understand the present position unless we accept the fundamental fact that what Franco let loose on Spain was ruthless class war. On one side were the people, on the other the privileged classes; the geographical boundary is meaningless and misleading. The workers and peasants of Badajoz or Seville were just as Leftist as those of Valencia or Madrid; the privileged classes of Barcelona were just as Fascist as those of Zaragoza. That is why a period of chaos and atrocities followed. The extreme Anarchists murdered the Fascists in their power in Barcelona, the equally fanatical Carlists and Falangists murdered anyone associated with the Popular Front or with trades-unionism in their territory.

If anyone still believes that only Anarchists murder, I commend to him Mr. Lawrence Fernsworth’s report to the New York Times on January 22, 1938, on what was found to have happened in Teruel when its remaining population was rescued from the rebels by the Government. According to him, three thousand Left sympathizers were found to have been murdered by Franco. In passing, one may observe that while the Anarchists in Barcelona killed quietly at night, the Franco forces decorated the main square of Teruel and killed the workers and peasants and their liberal supporters in the best tradition of fiesta and auto-da-fé, to the sound of music and applause.

Now atrocities prove nothing in themselves. History neither punishes nor condemns cruelty. But two things are important in estimating the Spanish Government’s case in the light of what we now know about Spanish atrocities. First, in order to achieve the ‘tranquillity’ in his territory which so impresses a certain type of observer, Franco had to complete his scheme of saving Christianity by importing Moors with an even more curious one of saving capitalism by liquidating the working class. It is not surprising that those who remain ‘go about their business as if nothing had happened,’ or that they raise their arms in the Fascist salute on all observed occasions. The remaining Fascists in Barcelona do their best to be unobserved, and doubtless raise their fists in the Popular Front salute. But by the very fact that he has still to impose himself by terror, Franco loses all claim to represent the people of Spain. The Government, on the other hand, not only does not rule by terror, but has been able to put those responsible for the early days of terror under lock and key. Whereas the men who murdered at Teruel continue in power until defeated by the Government forces, the men who murdered in Barcelona are receiving their due punishment.

Add to this one more indisputable fact. There are very few refugees into Franco’s territory — a few hundreds of the privileged classes, and no more. But in Government territory, in spite of the greater scarcity and danger, there are a million and a half refugees who escaped by any means in their power, at the first opportunity, from Franco’s territory or from towns threatened by his early advances. There never has been a stranger example of mass departure at the coming of a ‘deliverer’ than when the rebels captured Málaga, Bilbao, Santander, Gijón. Scarcely anyone waited willingly to thank Franco.

The truth about atrocities and the truth about refugees alike point to one irrefutable fact: the Spanish Government has made good its claim to represent the overwhelming mass of the people of Spain, for the illegal military rebellion has turned into a Spanish War of Independence against the foreign invaders called in by those classes who saw their privileges threatened.

The case for the Spanish Government becomes stronger every day from another angle. There was a time when, thanks to the disloyalty of most of the Army and the Guardia Civil, foreign aid was needed to help defend a defenseless people. In November 1936, Madrid was saved by the International Brigade. To-day the Government could do without the few thousand foreigners still offering themselves, as they believe, as allies for hardpressed democracy. Out of the chaos has been created a disciplined, trained People’s Army capable of withstanding the international forces opposed to it. If Mussolini withdrew his 120,000 troops (in fairness we may say that Mussolini admits only 40,000 breaches of nonintervention in Spain), and if Germany stopped sending technicians for two months’ courses in modern warfare with bleeding Spain as a convenient target, the Spaniards could finish their war in a very short time.

I think we may say that the historical value of the Franco rebellion has been to accelerate the social changes which it was intended to prevent. In their struggles the Spanish people have learned political lessons that might have taken years to learn in more peaceful times. Feudalism is liquidated; and that does not mean merely its manifestations among the privileged classes. One of the most important results of feudalism in Spain was the powerful Anarchist movement, and so long as the protest from the Left took the traditional form of Anarchism there was little likelihood of progress. But after a brief period when Anarchism was in the ascendant it has rapidly declined, and there is far less likelihood of an Anarchist revolution now than ever in Spain’s history. And so, when once more peace is restored and the restless legions return to Italy and Germany, the liberal Government of Spain will find itself supported by a Left far better educated politically than before and less easily made to play into the hands of whatever reactionaries may still remain.

But will the Spanish Government win ? That depends on a hundred imponderable factors, all of them outside Spain itself. The fate of Spain is tangled up with that of China, of France, of Czechoslovakia, of us all. We may still have to look back in a world purged of democracy and realize that our undoing came when we refused to support a Spanish Government which was ruined because it tried to bring to Spain those conceptions of political and social welfare we accept as commonplaces in our own lands.