Issue 223 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published Ocotber 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
'In the mountain passes catapults were used to hurl the dynamite at the enemy. In the cities, the dynamiters crept forward smoking cigars with which they lit the sticks grasped in their hands'
On 4 October 1934, the coal miners of Asturias in northern Spain rose in armed insurrection. Although poorly equipped and heavily outnumbered, they held off the Spanish army for nearly two weeks. In the region's mountains and valleys a revolutionary commune was established.
The conservative government, elected a year earlier, had launched an all out assault on the gains workers had made after the fall of the monarchy in 1931. It was backed in this offensive by the far right CEDA, which by October 1934 was poised to join the government.
The rise of fascism in other parts of Europe had made a deep impression on much of the Spanish left. The CEDA did not hide its sympathy for the Nazis. and it was widely expected that this party would try to introduce an authoritarian regime through parliament, as Hitler had. But many workers were determined that the disaster that had befallen the divided German labour movement would not be repeated in Spain. Following the heroic uprising of the workers of Vienna in February 1934, in a vain attempt to stop the semi-fascist Dolfuss entering the government in Austria, the watchword of Spanish anti-fascists had become 'Better Vienna than Berlin'.
Nowhere was the radicalisation of the Spanish workers' movement clearer than in the ranks of the Socialist Party (PSOE). Under pressure from its rank and file, its strategy of reformist gradualism was being replaced by calls for revolution.
By early 1934, anti-fascist united fronts, the Workers' Alliances, were being organised around the country. The Alliances were often influenced by revolutionary socialists, but the PSOE leaders had little choice but to join them. However, the Alliances had one great weakness--the absence of the powerful anarcho-syndicalist union, the CNT.
Only in Asturias were the workers truly united. The harsh reality of this mining community had produced a tradition of cooperation and unity rarely seen elsewhere in the peninsula. In March 1934, the region's Socialist and anarchist unions formed a Workers' Alliance, clearly stating that the only way to stop fascism was by making the revolution.
On 4 October, the CEDA entered the government. The PSOE reluctantly called a general strike. In Asturias this immediately developed into an armed insurrection. The miners had waited months for this day, and hastily formed militias took over the villages and quickly laid siege to most of the province's Civil Guard posts. In the mining town of Mieres, the Provincial Revolutionary Committee announced to a wildly enthusiastic crowd the founding of the Socialist Republic.
The local Workers' Alliance committees set about organising every aspect of life from food distribution and hospitals through to transport and communications. A makeshift war industry was rapidly set up and factories began to turn out armoured vehicles, weapons and ammunition. The workers even produced a benzol substitute for petrol, made from coal. 'Red Guards' were organised to ensure revolutionary order, looters were strictly dealt with and well known right wingers arrested. Women were heavily involved at all levels, many joining the men in the militias.
The miners had few arms and relied on those captured from government forces or arms factories, but they suffered from a chronic shortage of ammunition. The principal weapon throughout the insurrection was to be dynamite--its adept use led to the miners inflicting various humiliating defeats on the army. In the mountain passes giant catapults were used to hurl the dynamite at the enemy. In the cities, the dynamiters crept forward smoking cigars with which they lit the sticks grasped in their hands.
Once the mining areas had been secured, a column of 1,000 militia was despatched to take the provincial capital of Oviedo. Here, where the local party and union bureaucracy was more dominant, the workers had been slow to rise and it needed the arrival of the miners to establish revolutionary power in the city's streets. The government forces were quickly driven into a few isolated strongholds.
Meanwhile, troops sent by Madrid to deal with the rebels met stiff resistance in the region's southern mountain passes. Several hundred miners, armed mainly with dynamite, pinned down one such government force for 12 days.
Tragically, the Asturian Commune remained isolated. Unfortunately much of the Socialist leaders' new found militancy was only hot air. They had thought they could frighten the ruling class from going further down the road to fascism with talk of revolution. Elsewhere in Spain the general strike soon collapsed, due to the passivity of the PSOE leadership and the lack of CNT support. Only in Catalonia, under revolutionary socialist influence, did the strike also begin to take on insurrectionary proportions, before being undermined by the half heartedness of the left nationalists and anarchists.
Such was the optimism of the Asturian workers that news of the failure of the movement elsewhere in Spain was dismissed as government lies. After ten days of desperate resistance, the 20,000 militia were gradually pushed back by the enemy forces. The government soon demonstrated that it intended to smash the movement at any cost. Advancing troops used prisoners to form human shields and aircraft bombed food queues.
On 18 October, after protracted negotiations, the revolutionaries surrendered. Many workers refused to hand over their arms, either hiding them or fleeing to the mountains to begin a guerrilla struggle.
The troops sent to crush the insurrection were under the command of one General Franco who brought with him from North Africa units with a long history in brutally putting down colonial revolt. As a foretaste of what Spanish workers would experience at his hands two years later in the Civil War, the future dictator unleashed his troops on the defenceless mining villages leaving a trail of murder, rape and torture. Over 2,000 workers were killed during the uprising.
However, the miners' heroism was not in
vain. Their rebellion put an end to any 'legal'
attempts to install a fascist regime. The
Spanish working class had learned a valuable
lesson. When, in July 1936, the military
rose up to overthrow the recently elected
left wing government, thousands of workers
poured onto the streets to stop them. Their
battle cry was that of 1934, 'UHP!' (Unite
Proletarian Brothers). The Spanish
revolution had begun.