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Eighty years ago, on 31 March 1934, anarchist and socialist representatives met in a bar in Gijón in the northern Spanish region of Asturias to sign the Workers’ Alliance, a coalition of the trade unions and political parties (later joined by the communists) who agreed to collaborate and work towards ‘social revolution’. Six months later the October ‘Revolution’ began when the central areas of Asturias exploded into a revolutionary insurrection which lasted for two weeks, with the backbone of the revolutionary forces formed by the grassroots of the Workers’ Alliance.

Eighty years later the question of Left unity has emerged again. Ten days ago thousands demonstrated in Madrid, with many having walked from all over Spain on ‘Marches for Dignity’. Under this banner different social movements (fighting unemployment, anti-abortion legislation, anti-eviction, in defence of state education, etc.) united in Madrid on the same day to make a stand against the government’s austerity measures and attacks on the welfare state.

Socorro_rojo_de_EspañaThe 1934 ‘Revolution’ or Asturian ‘Commune’ was sparked by the entry of the right-wing CEDA party into government. The revolutionaries believed that the Second Republic, jubilantly proclaimed in 1931, and what it stood for were being dismantled before their eyes. During the insurrection revolutionary committees were established, money was abolished, food and money seized and militias fought with government forces in the provincial capital, Oviedo, and in the mountains on the border with Leon.

Compared to 1934, the demands of the Marches for Dignity are hardly revolutionary. But by building on the indignados movement of 2010 and resentment of the political establishment (and its calls for ‘Real Democracy, Now!’), the Marches for Dignity movement is not just about unifying struggles, but also maintains that the current model has failed them, thereby questioning the functioning of the political system and the legitimacy of the government.[1]

The repression of the October ‘Revolution’ was brutal – some 15,000 were prisoned, with the majority maltreated or tortured. Debates after the ‘Revolution’ centred on the destruction wrought and the violence of the repression (and calls for amnesty). Eighty years later, debates over 22 March have become bitter struggles over the use of violence by the police and a minority of protesters (including a false rumour spread by the police unions). Prior to the demonstration and in a clear attempt to lay claim to the centre ground, conservative politicians labelled the protestors as both left- and right-wing extremists. The demonstration on 22 March was peaceful for the most part, but its coverage in the media -and that of incidents since[2]– has been dominated by arguments and discussion over violence. Framing the debate in this way favours the authorities more than the social movements.

For all of their emphasis on violence and radicalism, there is little prospect of any repeat of 1934 in 2014. The stones thrown in Madrid, captured on television, are a long way from the stock-piling of arms and the training of militias. And while there are worrying reports of police brutality and maltreatment of those arrested, this pales in comparison to the mass use of terror tactics after the 1934 Revolution, which included extrajudicial murder and 15,000 imprisoned, with the majority of those arrested maltreated or tortured.

In 2014, while state violence is strongly criticised, retaliating or pre-empting the state’s use of violence is not countenanced at all. Rather than planning the capture of the state through the force of arms, violence is something from which to distance oneself.

Eighty years since the Workers’ Alliance and 75 since the end of the Spanish Civil War, ‘UHP!’,[3] the password and battle-cry of the 1934 ‘Revolution’, echoes down from the past. It remains to be seen whether a united effort will manage to return dignity to those who feel like they’re losing everything in 2014.

Matthew Kerry is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield working on political identities in Asturias in northern Spain during the Second Republic. You can find him on twitter @MDKerry and read his other History Matters blogs here.

Header image: The Asturian column on its way to join the Marches for Dignity in Madrid, 22 March 2014 ©Fernando Jiménez Briz via Flickr
Inset image: The most representative Civil War poster of the 1934 October ‘Revolution’ in Asturias. [Wikicommons]


[1] Since the 2010 different initiatives have emerged from the grassroots desire for change in the political system, including the Partido X and the newly-formed Podemos.

[2] Such as a strike at the Complutense University in Madrid where more than 50 were arrested. At the weekend seven journalists were attacked by police for filming an arrest. Sunday’s vignette on eldiario.es succinctly summarised the attitude of the government. Confronted with an unemployed individual begging for help, prime minister Rajoy points to the list of petitions and asks, ‘That’s all very well, but where does it say that you condemn violence?’

[3] ‘Uníos, hermanos proletarios!’-‘Unite, proletarian brothers!’. Some attribute the slogan to an imaginative re-interpretation of the initials UHP (Union Horse Power) stamped on the British machinery used at the time.

Tags : 1934 RevolutionAsturian CommuneindignadosMarches for DignityprotestSpanish Civil WarSpanish October Revolutionstate violenceWorkers Alliance
Matthew Kerry

The author Matthew Kerry

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