By 1936 unemployment had gone over 30% in many of the towns and cities Out of a total workforce of three million, one million were out of work. There was no dole and as prices rose by 80% in the five years up to 1936, many encountered severe hardship.
By European standards Spain was a particularly backward country. There had been little industrial development and 70% of the people still lived on the land. 52% of the workforce was employed in agriculture which accounted for between one half and two thirds of Spain's exports.
The division of land was the worst in Europe. A massive 67% was in the hands of just 2% of all landowners. In 1936, 10,000 proprietors owned half of the national territory. The remaining land was owned by "middle owners" and peasants. The "middle owners" were more numerous than the big landowners but they also had large estates worked by sharecroppers and landless labourers.
The rest of the land was owned by peasants, of whom there were five million Because most of them had insufficient land they hired themselves out as day labourers. Others took to sharecropping.
Spain's boom period had been during World War I when it had remained neutral. Agriculture thrived due to the large foreign markets for its exports. At the same time some industrialisation took place. After the war, though, this boom came to an end, especially when tariff barriers were thrown up by Britain and France against Spanish exports.
While the boom lasted the landowners reaped the benefits but when the slump arrived it was the peasants who suffered. conditions in the Spain of the 1930's were comparable with the Orient. Starvation was _normal_ between the harvests. The press of the time carried reports of whole districts living on roots and boiled greens. The industrialisation that had taken place was mainly confined to one area- Catalonia. Situated in the Northeast bordering on France, Catalonia, especially its capital Barcelona, became the industrial centre of Spain, with 70% of all industry and 50% of industrial workers. Many peasants left the land to seek work in Barcelona, which added to the already existing unemployment.
Other forces at the time were the Catholic church and the army. While there were 25,000 parish priests there were a further 70,000 in religious orders. The Jesuits alone owned 30% of the country's wealth. The numbers in the orders actually outnumbered the total of secondary school students. While millions were kept illiterate (40% could neither read nor write) the church preached superstitious reports of incredible incidents such as statues seen weeping and crucifixes exuding blood.
The Church was renowned for siding with the bosses and while the priests were living in luxury the peasants around them often starved. It is little wonder the Church was hated.
The army was famous for its number of officers. There was one for every six soldiers! This officer caste had been developed under the monarchy (which was ended in I 931) and was responsible for the whole colonial administration along with much of that in the country itself. Drawn from the upper classes they were tied by kinship, friendship and social position to the industrialists and reactionary landowners.
The Spanish Republic was born in 1931. The workers and peasants, having gone through years of dictatorship, believed that maybe now the country would be modernised and their living standards would begin to improve.
It was not to be so. One example will suffice. The republican government set up the Institute for Agrarian Reform to look into the redistribution of land. By its own admission its programme would have taken a whole century to implement.
The republican/social-democratic coalition which came to power in 1931 did little to improve living conditions for the vast majority of workers. Unemployment remained high and the working class organisations, especially the CNT, suffered repression with many members being imprisoned. By June 1933 there were 9,000 political prisoners.
The government refused to take on the industrialists, landowners, army officers and bishops. It would not stand up to that minority which owned all the wealth and had all the real power. In the election of 1933 they fell and a right-wing coalition came to power.
This marked the beginning of what became known as the "bienno negro" the two black years. The right went on the offensive. The coalition of the wealthy and powerful now had state power and were determined to use it to smash working class and peasant resistance. Their privileges were to be maintained at the expense of the workers.
Of course this was not taken lightly. The CNT organised as best it could against the government. A rising took place in Catalonia in December, shortly after the change of government. It was crushed after ten days. The following year the workers of the CNT joined with their fellow workers in the UGT (General Union of Workers, controlled by the Socialist Party) in a revolt in the Asturias region. The workplaces were taken over and the union members took up arms against the state. Unfortunately they were isolated from the rest of the country. The massacre that followed their defeat was unprecedented with at least 3,000 being executed.
By the time this government was forced to resign and call elections for February I 936 there were 30,000 political prisoners. The election was won by the Popular Front, a coalition of republicans, social-democrats and the Stalinists of the Communist Party. Their victory was mainly due to the CNT not running a campaign calling on the workers to abstain from voting. In previous elections they had done so because they believed that the ballot box was a con as you could only choose who would rule over you, not whether you wanted to be ruled or not. Instead they said workers should rely on their industrial muscle to change things.
This time the CNT took no position, leaving it to individual members to decide The results made it obvious they had voted, mainly because the Popular Front had promised an amnesty for the prisoners.
The workers, though, did not wait for the government to act. They opened the prisons themselves and released their comrades. It did not stop there. The election result was seen as an impetus to go on the offensive. They had voted for change and if the government was not going to deliver they would get results themselves.
Between the election in February and the fascist revolt in July there were 113 general strikes, 228 partial general strikes, 145 bomb explosions, 269 deaths, 1287 wounded, 215 assaults and 160 churches burned. Of course all this was not part of the Popular Front programme which was watery and essentially aimed at maintaining anti-fascist unity. It was not aimed at smashing capitalism and the power of the Spanish elite. Sections of the Socialist Party, however, went beyond the Popular Front programme and many of them in the UGT again joined with their comrades in the CNT to fight the passivity of the government.
On June 13th, 30,000 Asturian miners struck; on June 19th 90,000 miners throughout the country were on strike. Every city of importance had at least one general strike. Over one million were out in the first days of July. Strikers were not only fighting for economic demands, political demands were also made. On July 14th there was a large demonstration outside a ball at the Brazilian embassy. The workers carried placards saying "Republican Ministers amuse themselves while workers die".
While the Republican government did all it could to get the situation under control, the Communist Party condemned the strikes for bringing workers into collision with the government. The government duly filled the jails and closed down the offices of the CNT.
As with all ruling classes that become desperate, they decided that parliamentary democracy was to be disposed of and the workers' organisation smashed. Bosses don't always oppose fascism because they know they sometimes have to resort to it. Their wealth and privileges come before all other considerations. As in Germany and Italy they decided the organised working class had to be put down so they could hang onto their wealth and continue to make profits. While some will initially oppose fascism, and in Spain some did, it is nevertheless a call of last resort and they will go along with it if they see it as necessary to maintain their power. In the Basque Country the nationalists initially opposed the fascists. But when the choice of fascism or social revolution became clear, they offered little resistance to Franco.
The coup was to be launched on July I 7th. The initial step was taken when Franco seized Morocco and issued a "radical manifesto". This was picked up by a loyal radio operator who passed it on to the Minister for the Navy. The news of the coup was kept secret until 7pm on the 18th. The government assured the country it was in control. By this it meant it was trying to come to terms with the fascists. The cabinet resigned on the 18th and Borrios, a right wing republican, was made prime minister.
This plan to come to a deal was only smashed by the activity of the organised working class. The fascists made some headway in parts of the country where little opposition was offered as a result of government hesitation. But in Catalonia, and especially in Barcelona, the workers of the CNT showed how to fight. They declared a general strike and took to the streets looking for arms which the government refused to give them. In the end they stormed the barracks, and took what they needed. They were aided by soldiers who had remained loyal, some of whom turned their guns on their officers.
The workers immediately set up barricades and within hours the rising had been defeated. Arms were siezed and given to groups of workers who were dispatched to other areas to prevent risings occurring. Madrid was also saved because of the heroism and initiative of the workers. Hearing of what had happened in Barcelona they had stormed the Montana Barracks, the main army base in the city.
In Valencia they surrounded the barracks, a situation which lasted for two weeks. Still the government refused to arm the workers and it was only after arms were sent from Barcelona and Madrid that the barracks was successfully taken. In Asturias the rebels were beaten after prolonged fighting leading to many deaths. Then the miners outfitted a column of 5,000 dynamiters who marched to Madrid.
Throughout the country the initiative taken by workers and peasants was stopping the fascists in their tracks. This was the story in three quarters of the country. Elsewhere valuable time was lost due to the indecision of government officials. In Saragossa the workers failed to put down the rising. Juan Iopez, a leading CNT militant, put this down to the fact that they "lost too much time having interviews with the civil governor, we even believed in his promises".
Thus by the action of the rank and file was "the Spanish Republic saved'. Not just the CNT but members of the UGT and the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unity) joined in the fighting. For these workers this was not just a war to defeat the fascists but the beginning of a revolution. Workers militias were established independently of the state. Workplaces which had been abandoned by the former bosses were taken over and in the rural areas the peasants seized the land. For the anarchists this was the chance to put their ideas into practice.