Second Spanish Republic. 1931-33. Unions and Forces of Order.

Second Spanish Republic 1931-33. Unions and Forces of Order 5.18.

Abbreviations used:
CEDA: the Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas. Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-Wing Parties. Founded 1933.
CNT: Confederación Nacional del Trabajo. National Labour Confederation. Founded 1910. Anarcho-syndicalist trade union.
FAI: Federación Anarquista Ibérica. Iberian Anarchist Federation. Founded 1927. More militant vanguard of the CNT.
PSOE: Partido Socialista Obrero Español. Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. Founded 1879.
UGT: Union General de Trabajadores, the PSOE’s trade union affiliate. Founded 1888.
FNNT: Federación Nacional de Trabajadores de la Tierra: Agricultural landworkers’ branch of the UGT.

Unions and Forces of Order: The Politics of Destruction.
The first government of Spain’s Second Republic lasted from June 1931 until November 1933. Dominated by a coalition of left-wing interests, it was immediately tasked with finding solutions to four pressing problems: 1.  the role of the Catholic Church, 2. Agrarian reform, 3. Regional autonomy, and 4. Military reform.

By the end of 1932, the Second Republic appeared to have matters in hand with Church power outwardly weakened, both a Catalan Statute of Autonomy and Agrarian reform bill successfully passed by the Cortes (Parliament), and the Army re-organised and seemingly under control.

But the assaults on the Church and the Army, and the passing of the Catalan Statute and Agrarian reform incensed already embittered enemies of the Republic, e. g., the Church hierarchy, landowners, bankers, centrists, committed Catholic lay members, military officers, monarchists, and the right-wing Press. Implacable opponents of the Republic, they were united by a common nostalgic vision of an historically great Spain.

Early in the first two years of the Second Republic (June 1931-November 1931), those groups hostile to the Republic were disorganised and badly split, but gradually united under the umbrella of a right-wing party, the Confederacion Espanola de Derechas Autonomas (CEDA), founded by a young lawyer, Jose Maria Gil Robles, in March 1933.

But there were also other factors that destabilised the Republican dream, not least the hostility of the anarchists (CNT) and the inability of the socialists (PSOE/UGT) to incorporate them into the Republican agenda. Suppressed during the dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera (1923-30), the CNT viewed the socialists as traitors to the working class for having collaborated with the Primo regime.

Consequently a hardcore offshoot, the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI), had emerged, committed to ensuring the survival and purity of anarchist ideology. Not surprisingly, the CNT did not endorse the Republic, but it was the FAI that actively sought to destabilise the Republic through violent strikes and armed insurrection.

The difference between the two was one of degree rather than of substance, but the militant, revolutionary faístas quickly took over from the more pragmatic, moderate cenetistas who were more inclined initially to give the Republic the opportunity to fulfil its promises.

Mob violence, perpetrated largely by anarchists very quickly shattered Republican optimism. From May 11 to 14, 1931 (i. e. within a month of the Republic’s birth, April 14, 1931), a rash of church burning (known in Spanish as the quema (burning) de conventos) in Madrid and several southern cities (Málaga, Seville, Alicante, Cádiz) set the tone for what would become an unfortunate and polarising pattern of FAI-CNT insurrection followed by government repression.

Responding to a series of strikes and growing disorder during the summer of 1931, the government created a new paramilitary police force, the Guardias de asalto (Assault Guards), the urban equivalent to the rural Guardias civiles (Civil Guards). Anarchist newspapers, meetings, demonstrations, and union offices were all subject to suspension or closure, and militants subject to arrest .

The irony of this confrontation is that a government that was sympathetic to worker demand and was attempting radical measures to break down historical elitism was at the same time being cornered into using imprisonment, detention, closure of party centres etc.

Frequently, it even resorted to repressive force against workers. Fighting against determined conservative opposition on the one hand and worker impatience for change on the other, the government was condemned by both sides. Damned as godless communists by the right, they were bitterly denounced as being worse than the hated monarchy by the CNT.

The socialist union, the UGT, was caught in between. It could not afford to let the CNT-FAI win converts through inaction, and yet strikes initiated by the UGT were also blows to the very government it supported and further evidence to the Rightists of the chaos into which the patria had fallen.

In fact, figures show that the UGT had reasons for concern because between 1931 and 1932 membership of the CNT surpassed that of the UGT. In 1931 there were 958,176 members belonging to the UGT compared to 535, 565 for the CNT. By the 1932, the respective numbers were: 1,041,531 for the UGT and 1,200,000 for the CNT (Shubert 131). The remarkable growth in CNT membership and the increased strikes and confrontations with the government reflect its growing power.

 In 1929 there had only been 96 strikes, but in 1931 the number rose to 734 (Shubert 134) reflecting the change from a dictatorship to democracy. In 1932, there were actually fewer: 681, but in 1933 strikes reached a staggering number: 1,127, involving 843,000 strikers (Shubert 134).

This increase reveals the frustrated hopes and deep discontent of workers who saw strikes as the only recourse to obtain a satisfactory result. Employer lockouts or dismissal or owner intransigence also often forced workers to strike action, even to resort to violence: torching buildings, destroying crops, burning barns). The government’s response in virtually all these protests was to call in the forces of order.

The Forces of Order.
The heavy handedness of the government in handling strikes and confrontations was not helped in many instances by the repressive actions of the police, especially the Guardia Civil. The Guardia had been created in the 19th century as an armed (paramilitary) rural police force to maintain public order especially against rampant banditry.

Predictably, the guardias were well received by the latifundistas (large estate owners) who quickly used them to control disturbances on their land. By the 20th century, the Civil Guard had become a feared symbol of authority to peasants and workers, and their reputation for brutality was widespread.

With political tensions provoked by government moves to reform on so many fronts (church state relationship, agrarian and military reform, regional recognition) and social tensions arising from the slow implementation of the reforms or from backlash by aggrieved landowners, conservative Catholics etc., the relationship between the Civil Guards and peasants was predictably edgy. The large number of strikes and disturbances between 1931 and 1933 only added fuel to fire.

Whether the strikes occurred in UGT or CNT territory, and whether they were legal or not, the Guardia Civil or the new assault force, the Guardias de asalto, shared the same determination to put down protests quickly and often brutally.

On December 31st, 1931, the FNNT called for a strike in the town of Castilblanco (in the province of Badajoz, Extremadura). The demonstration, meant to draw attention to the plight of jobless jornaleros (day workers), was the third in as many days and was declared illegal. Tensions were high and worsened when a group of women protesters tried to enter the town centre.

At this point discipline broke down, a guardia fired a shot and one protestor fell dead and two others wounded in the scuffle.  Furious, the villagers set upon the guardias killing four with hoes, knives and stones. When the tragedy went national, the conservative press had a field day, the whole affair providing it with plenty of ammunition to condemn republican excesses, especially when it was rumoured that the women had danced upon the bodies of the dead guardias.

A few days later, forty-five villagers were rounded up, strung up outdoors by their wrists and interrogated in freezing cold weather. Twenty-two (twenty men and two women) were put on trial, thirteen of whom were found guilty. Seven were sentenced to death and six to life imprisonment. (Later the seven deaths sentences were reduced to life imprisonment and the other six to twenty years imprisonment.

There were more incidents throughout the country in the following days, the most tragic occurring in the northern town of Arnedo (southeast of Logroño, La Rioja). On January 5, 1932, a peaceful demonstration protesting the sacking of several workers at a local shoe factory ended in pools of blood.

The protestors, including women and children had gathered in the town square, the Plaza de la República, where the Civil Guard had already assembled. Suddenly, without warning the Civil Guards opened fire, killing six men and five women (including a child) and wounding thirty more. A military investigation into the tragedy found the guardias and the lieutenant in charge not guilty owing to lack of evidence.

Strikes and protests continued but it was in 1933 that they reached their high point, with 1,127 strikes, involving 843,000 strikers. Confrontations were a daily reality, and violence and death routine. One particular tragedy at the beginning of 1933 resonated throughout the country and was invaluable fodder for conservative attacks on the Republic’s inability to keep public order. It happened in the insignificant agricultural town of Casas Viejas, in the southern province of Cádiz.

In brief, peasants took part in a country-wide anarchist-inspired insurrection taking over the town on January 11, 1933, and declaring the establishment of comunismo libertario (libertarian communism, as opposed to state communism).  However, in the process they killed two civil guards.

Assisted by Assault Guards, the Civil Guards hunted the rebels. By the time the smoke had cleared (literally, a hut was set on fire) twenty-two peasants were dead, including twelve who were executed mercilessly in an act of revenge. Dozens of campesinos were also arrested and tortured. However, as in the tragedy in Arnedo, the members of the forces of order were not found responsible owing to  lack of evidence.

Public reaction was swift on both right and left and the government was on the defensive. It then committed the error of washing its hands of responsibility, claiming that nothing unusual had happened in Casas Viejas. The government’s implausible defence clung to it like a dirty rag.

The hot summer of 1933 witnessed more disorder and repression as workers vented their frustration at the seeming lack of social and economic change. An already embattled left wing coalition crumbled as the UGT found it more difficult to ignore the anger of its members, and socialist members of the Cortes –disillusioned with their collaboration with Prime Minister Manuel Azaña’s republicans– seriously questioned the usefulness of the alliance. 

By early September loss of confidence in Azaña forced him to resign. Two brief attempts to form new governments failed, and a decision by the socialists to refuse to join any coalition and to seek power on their own persuaded the president, Niceto Alcalá Zamora to dissolve the Cortes on October 10 and call new elections for November 19.

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