As in all backward capitalist countries, class confrontation in Spain had always been direct. A Liberal/Socialist coalition government elected in 1931 had made no effort to challenge the power of the industrialists, big landowners or the church. The state machine was left intact and when peasants and workers reacted as reforms promised were not delivered, they were brutally suppressed. Such concessions, however, did not satisfy the bourgeoisie and in July l936 Manuel Azana’s liberal government, which was supported by socialists, communists and some anarchists, was challenged by a military uprising supported by the vast majority of the ruling class.
This deadly threat immediately threw the workers and peasants into action. They seized factories and land which they then controlled through their own committees. They set up armed militias. The government was confronted from below by a mass revolutionary upsurge. The choice was clear: either a rapid move towards proletarian dictatorship or a military takeover. The workers and peasants were starting to exert their control over society, the ruling class was intent on securing its rule by military terror.
This is where the Stalinists stepped in. They were quick to deny that this was a fight for state power. A functionary of the Communist International explained:
In Spain it is not the proletarian dictatorship that is on the agenda of history. The struggle is not between proletariat and bourgeoisie for the establishment of the rule of the working class, but between the proletariat, the peasantry, the democratic bourgeoisie and the intellectuals on the one side, and the monarcho-feudalist reactionaries, the counter-revolutionary Fascists, on the other; against the hated monarchy, against feudal serfdom, against the fresh Fascist enslavement, for the maintenance of the democratic republic. 
Any attempt to hold onto this non-existent middle ground would mean the suppression of any force that was going beyond it. As Trotsky argued:
When the workers and peasants enter on the path of their revolution – when they seize factories and estates, drive out the old owners, conquer power in the provinces – then the bourgeois counter-revolution – democratic, Stalinist or Fascist alike – has no other means of checking this movement except through bloody coercion, supplemented by lies and deceit. 
Adapting to the most conservative elements in the labour movement leadership and the scrag end of the bourgeois democracy, the Stalinists worked overtime to derail the revolutionary forces.
The first Moscow show trial was staged in the summer of 1936. Despite the commitment to ‘socialism in one country’, Stalinism is an international force. The thrust of the trials – that Stalin’s opponents in the Soviet Union were conspiring with the exiled Trotsky on behalf of the Fascist states, was largely for external consumption. Andrei Vishinsky, the prosecutor at all the trials, explored the international dimension at the first trial:
By rendering these accomplices of Fascism harmless, the people of the Soviet Union and its officials have not only done a service to their own country, but also to all fighters against Fascist slavery, to all friends of peace. For the fight of the French workers in the People’s Front, the heroic fight of the Spanish workers against the perfidious generals, the fight of the anti-Fascists before the Fascist courts in Germany, and lastly the fight of the peoples of the Soviet Union and their courts against the emissaries and supporters of Fascism, are all fundamentally one and the same fight, which is only being fought out on different sections of the front. 
Stalin’s opponents abroad could now expect the same treatment as his victims at home. Pravda brought this home in December 1936 with an unambiguous threat: ‘In Catalonia, the elimination of Trotskyists and Anarcho-Syndicalists has already begun; it will be carried out with the same energy as in the USSR’. 
Early in 1937 came the second Moscow trial and in March Stalin gave a particularly lurid speech to the central committee of the Soviet Communist Party. He declared that Trotskyism had ‘long ceased to be a political trend in the working class’ and that Trotskyists had ‘become a gang of wreckers, diversionists, spies, assassins...working in the pay of foreign intelligence services’. Moreover, ‘the old methods, the methods of discussion’ were obsolete in the fight against them, and ‘new methods, uprooting and smashing methods’ were now the prescribed means.  Notice had been served upon all of Stalin’s left wing opponents (Stalinists were not fussy about whom they called Trotskyists). They could no longer expect even the kind of ‘debate’ to which they had been accustomed. Now it was the show trials, prisons and the GPU’s death squads.
The reckoning was soon to come to Spain. Tensions had been growing between militant workers and the authorities, sometimes leading to armed clashes, especially in the Catalonia region. The authorities, with the full support of the Stalinists, staged in May 1937 a provocation in Barcelona by seizing the telephone exchange which had been held until then by the Anarchists. The ensuing street fighting gave the government the pretext to clamp down on the left wing forces. Freshly back from Spain, George Orwell remarked upon the ‘thoroughness’ with which the government was ‘crushing its own revolutionaries’:
When I left Barcelona in late June [l937] the jails were bulging; indeed, the regular jails had long since overflowed and the prisoners were being huddled into empty shops and any other temporary dump that could be found for them. But the point to notice is that the people who are in prison now are not the Fascists but revolutionaries; they are not there because their opinions are too much to the Right, but because they are too much to the Left. And the people responsible for putting them there are ... the Communists. 
The replacement of Francisco Largo Caballero by Juan Negrin as premier as a result of the May events was rapidly followed by an intensification of the repression against the left. Unlike his predecessor, Negrin willingly concurred with the Stalinists on the necessity to crush the left. The GPU was steadily extending its nefarious activities in Spain, not only acting in its own right, but infiltrating the republican judicial apparatus, the police and military forces, enjoying complete freedom of operation. On 16 June the leadership of the POUM, the Workers Party of Marxist Unification, was arrested and its most prominent figure, Andres Nin, was kidnapped, cruelly tortured and murdered behind closed doors. Other left wing militants, Kurt Landau, Marc Rhein, Hans Freund (Moulin), Erwin Wolf, to name but a few, disappeared in the hands of the GPU.
In March 1938, as the final and most grotesque of the Moscow trials was being staged, the Spanish Trotskyists were charged with sabotage, espionage and planning the assassination of Negrin and, among others, leading Stalinists Jose Diaz and Dolores ‘Pasionaria’ Ibarruri. Time was running out for the POUM as well. In July the Executive Committee of the Communist International demanded ‘the complete extermination of the Trotskyist POUM gang’.  In October its leaders were brought to trial. However, Nin had not ‘confessed’, the ‘evidence’ against the accused was embarrassingly crude and, unlike the defendants in the Moscow trials who were burnt out after a decade of expulsions, exiles, isolators and capitulations, the POUM leaders demonstrated their contempt for the proceedings (one of them continually referred to the Spanish judge as Mr Vishinsky), and the more serious charges against them were dropped.
As the government and its Stalinist minions came down harder upon the left, the situation worsened for the republic. A month after the Trotskyists were charged, Franco’s forces had reached Vinaroz on the east coast, cutting republican Spain in two. Two weeks after the POUM trial had ended, republican troops had withdrawn to beyond the River Ebro. Barcelona surrendered on 26 January 1939, nationalist troops entered a defeated Madrid on 28 March. Under Negrin, much of the gains of the 1936 revolutionary upsurge had been whittled away. Land was returned to its former owners, factory directors and managers took back their old posts, restrictions on the church were eased and the army was rebuilt along traditional lines. Just before the fall of Madrid Trotsky noted:
The Spanish revolution was Socialist in its essence: the workers attempted several times to overthrow the bourgeoisie, to seize the factories; the peasants wanted to take the land. The “People’s Front”, led by the Stalinists strangled the Socialist revolution in the name of an outlived bourgeois democracy. Hence the disappointment, the hopelessness, the discouragement of the masses of workers and peasants, the demoralisation of the republican army, and as a result, the military collapse. 
With the revolutionary movement suppressed by the Stalinists on behalf of the republican government, Franco’s victory was assured.
Since the mid-1950s the Stalinists have moderated their invective against their left wing opponents and will admit that the Trotskyists and other militants were not, after all, in the pay of the Gestapo. However, the worst aspects of the 1930s, the ‘aggressive and uncritical extolling of Stalin and all aspects of the Soviet Union, including the Moscow trials’, did manifest itself ‘within the framework of a basically correct and creative strategy’, as Monty Johnstone, a leading British Stalinist, put it.  The slanders, show trials and assassinations are seen as an aberration, not as an integral part of the Stalinist strategy of the time. Today’s Stalinists want the omelette but not the broken eggs.
There was nothing accidental about the so-called ‘excesses’ of the 1930s either in the Soviet Union or in Spain. Even if it didn’t follow a predetermined plan, the repression was drawn along by a remorseless logic. By the 1930s the Soviet bureaucracy had developed into a despotic ruling caste as fearful as the western ruling classes of proletarian revolution. Ever since Stalin promulgated his dogma of ‘socialism in one country’, the parties of the Communist International had steadily become local agencies of Soviet diplomacy, not leading the fight for workers’ power but attempting to pressurise their ruling classes into establishing friendly relations with the Soviet Union. The Popular Front of the 1930s was principally aimed at forcing the British and French bourgeoisies into concluding a collective security agreement with the Soviet Union to counter the growing threat from Nazi Germany. Stalin did not want the victory of Franco in Spain as he considered this would strengthen the position of Germany against France. He wanted the victory of a democratic capitalist Spain that would hopefully be aligned with Britain and France.
The Moscow trials were central to the Popular Front strategy even if, as Johnstone admits, they ‘made more difficult a closer relationship with and influence on the Socialists’.  If the Soviet Union was to forge friendly alliances with imperialist states, it would need a new image. 1917 was still fresh in people’s memories. The destruction of the Bolshevik old guard in the trials was to demonstrate that the Soviet Union was no longer a revolutionary threat to imperialism. The Stalinists were also concerned that their moderation would alienate the more active workers and were therefore determined that criticisms of their politics would not be heard.  If their left wing critics could be branded as ‘Fascists’ then no debate would be necessary. Those who recognised that workers’ democratic rights could only be defended by the struggle for state power received the worst of the Stalinists’ vengeance. Those who took the road of Socialist revolution would be crushed without mercy.
Many of the tales spread by the Stalinists during the Spanish Civil War are still retailed today, if in a more moderate, more apologetic manner. They still insist that the response of the Barcelona workers to the Stalinist provocation in May 1937 was a putsch staged by adventurists and provocateurs. Despite the proven presence of the GPU in Spain, the Stalinists prefer their fond memories. Leading Spanish Stalinist Santiago Carrillo recalls:
... it is true that it has been said that there were GPU prisons. I personally have no proof that there were and I never saw one, even though I believe the Soviet people must have had certain services [!!] in Spain, connected with the presence of their volunteers who were fighting at the front. 
A common response of late is to admit that the allegations made against the POUM and the Trotskyists were slanderous and the persecutions unjustified, but that it is perfectly understandable why the Communist movement accepted it all at the time. To quote Carrillo on the disappearance of Nin:
In the eyes of public opinion in general the Barcelona putsch was a counter-revolutionary act; there was a revolutionary war in Spain and, for the whole of the army and the people, that putsch, which a small group of Anarchists and Trotskyists had got together to carry out, appeared to be a counter-revolutionary act aimed at opening the front and helping the Fascist offensive ... The putsch of May 1937 strengthened us in the opinion that the Trotskyists were counter-revolutionaries. 
The recent official history of the Communist Party of Great Britain considers that ‘it was hardly surprising that the POUM should be regarded as traitors’ and ‘the notion that Trotskyists could be allied with fascists, or used as tools of the latter seemed plausible after the experience of the POUM in Spain’. 
This is sheer dishonesty. The ‘evidence’ presented at all the show trials was shot through with blatant falsifications, inconsistencies and absurdities that were pointed out at the time. Nor could any honest observer describe the Barcelona May events as a POUM ‘putsch’. The Stalinists made no attempt seriously to analyse the politics of their left wing opponents. There was no excuse for believing all the filthy business at that time and there is certainly no excuse for justifying that belief four or five decades later. To have accepted the Stalinist line in the 1930s necessitated the shutting off of all critical faculties and the willing suspension of disbelief. By attempting to reject the more unpalatable features of their activities in the 1930s whilst defending the system which spawned them, the Stalinists graphically demonstrate their inability to extricate themselves from the web of slander and deceit which they themselves have spun.
1. International Press Correspondence, 8 August 1936.
2. L. Trotsky, The lessons of Spain: the last warning, The Spanish Revolution 1931-39, New York 1973, p.313.
3. International Press Correspondence, 29 August 1936.
4. Cited in P. Broué and E. Témime, The Revolution and Civil War in Spain, London 1972, p.235.
5. J. Stalin, Defects in party work and measures for liquidating Trotskyite and other double-dealers, Works Vol.14, London 1978, p.261.
6. G. Orwell, Spilling the Spanish beans, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol.1, Harmondsworth 1984, p.302. Orwell was no Marxist but he could tell a revolution (and a counter-revolution) when he saw one:
The real struggle is between revolution and counter-revolution; between the workers who are vainly trying to hold on to a little of what they won in 1936, and the Liberal-Communist bloc who are so successfully taking it away from them. It is unfortunate that so few people in England have yet caught up with the fact that Communism is now a counter-revolutionary force; that Communists everywhere are in alliance with bourgeois reformism and using the whole of their powerful machinery to crush or discredit any party that shows signs of revolutionary tendencies. (Ibid.)
7. World News and Views, 23 July 1938.
8. L. Trotsky, Only revolution can end war, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39, New York 1974, pp.234.
9. Marxism Today, November 1975, my emphasis.
10. Ibid. And the bourgeois parties the Stalinists were assiduously courting, as Johnstone omits to say.
11. Trotsky was well aware of how Stalin used the anti-Trotskyist campaign to influence both rulers and workers in the west:
The Comintern exists and, despite the turn toward opportunism and chauvinism, in the eyes of bourgeois public opinion it bears responsibility for the whole revolutionary movement ... Stalin tried with all his might ... to prove that the Comintern was no longer a revolutionary instrument. But his word was not always so easily believed. To strengthen his credit with the French bourgeoisie he thought it useful to take bloody measures against the Left Opposition. But neither will he be able to renounce the Comintern. So-called “Trotskyism”, i.e., the development and the continuity of Marx and Lenin’s ideas, is spreading more and more, even in the ranks of the Comintern ... That is why it is a matter of life and death for Stalin, for his political authority before the workers, to destroy “Trotskyism”. With words? That is not his way. He has the apparatus, which makes it possible for him to stage frame-up trials. In this way the accusations must strengthen Stalin’s authority simultaneously among the allied bourgeoisie and among the revolutionary workers. (L. Trotsky, Stalin is not everything, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-36, New York 1977, pp.410-411)
12. S. Carrillo, Dialogue on Spain, London, 1976, p.52. Two British Stalinists say:
Stories about “NKVD agents” in Spain, especially in relation to the fight against Trotskyism, have been propagated so widely that one meets them almost everywhere, and this includes works by progressive historians. The authors of this article are inclined to think that most of them are apocryphal. (N. Green and A. Elliott, Our History, no.67, n.d. [late 1970s], p.22)
13. S. Carrillo, op. cit., pp.52-53.
14. N. Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941, London 1985. pp.235, 248. Ms Branson does not inform her readers of Nin’s terrible fate. He was, apparently, ‘almost certainly executed’ (ibid., p.244), by whom she declines to say.