A history full of lessons

Issue: 121

Matthew Cookson

Pierre Broué and Emile Témime, The Revolution And The Civil War In Spain (Haymarket, 2008), £30

The Spanish Revolution of 1936-7 was the high point of the working class struggles that marked the 1930s. It inspired millions across the world with the belief that it was possible to resist fascism, which had risen to power with minimal opposition in Italy and Germany. But the revolution was crushed not by fascism but by Stalinism, which placed the Republican forces on the road to their ultimate defeat in 1939.

Pierre Broué and Emile Témime’s book, first published in English in 1970, is a brilliant left wing account of the processes that led to that defeat. It, or at least Broue’s half on the revolution, rejects the standard account of the conflict and shows that it was only through deepening the revolution that the Republican side could win. Tragically, the influence of Stalinism ensured that did not happen.

A Popular Front government supported by socialists and anarchists was elected in Spain in February 1936. This followed years of repression of workers by right wing governments. Workers’ jubilance at the victory translated into strikes and jailbreaks freeing militants from prisons, despite attempts to restrain this movement by the new government.

Spain’s traditional rulers mobilised to stop this threat to their power and in July the army mutinied. General Francisco Franco later became the undisputed leader of this revolt. The military expected an easy victory, but it did not count on the resistance of Spain’s workers. While the government remained passive in the face of the right’s offensive, there were spontaneous workers’ uprisings against the army. In Madrid, Barcelona and other major cities the army was thrown back. As Broué points out:

“The state, caught between its insurgent army and the armed masses of the people, had shattered to pieces. Authority had literally crumbled away, and wherever the soldiers had been overwhelmed, it had passed into the streets, where armed groups dealt summarily with the most urgent tasks.”

In the areas where they held sway, workers took over and collectivised factories while peasants took over the land. A situation of dual power developed. The weak liberal government based in Madrid had little control over Republican Spain, and it went through a succession of forms as it struggled to cope with the twin threats to its survival—the power of the revolution on one side and fascism on the other.

The Republican forces suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the fascists due to a lack of coordination. Local committees conducted the war effort in their different areas, and they were understandably mistrustful of the central government and its aims.

The influence of Stalinist Russia and the Communist Party grew in these months due to Russia being the only major power that materially supported the Republic. Stalin did not want a revolutionary Spain that could disrupt his moves to befriend the capitalist powers of Britain and France. The corollary of this argument in Spain was the view that the revolution must first be halted in order to win the civil war. This would keep bourgeois elements on board and retain the unity of the struggle. The Spanish Communist Party became the focus of all those who argued this. To achieve this goal the left, including the anarchist CNT organisation, were brought into government—and were now subjected to centralised control over their activities.

The revolution began to be rolled back, with workers forced to leave the factories they had taken over and the removal of the power held by workers’ committees. Workers’ resentment grew as they saw the gains they had made disappear. Their bitterness erupted when government troops tried to seize the central telephone exchange in Barcelona in May 1937. Workers took control of the city and held it for two days. This was the final opportunity for revolutionary forces to throw back the growing counter_revolutionary offensive in the Republic and put forward a strategy that could defeat the fascists.

Unfortunately, the CNT and the revolutionary socialist Poum organisation urged their followers to abandon the barricades, finally disillusioning their followers enough for the government to regain control. The Communists and the government showed no such restraint and set about liquidating the revolution and its supporters. This destroyed the motivation of tens of thousands of people who believed they were fighting for a better society. The chance for victory had gone.

The last time that revolutionary methods were used by the Republic was during the siege of Madrid in November 1937. In the face of a major fascist assault the Communists turned to propaganda about the Russian Revolution and the need for workers’ heroism to motivate the city’s population to repel the attack. But this was the last victory for the Republic’s forces as “the revolutionary war was to be engulfed by the war, raised up as an end in itself against the revolution that had given it all its ardour”.

The book is written by two individuals from different viewpoints, though it makes a satisfying whole. Broué, who sympathises with the “dissident communists and revolutionary socialists”, wrote the first half on the revolution. Témime, who sympathises with the “moderate Republicans and progressive socialists”, wrote the second half of the book, which focuses on the international aspect of the war and the final defeat of the Republic.

For readers of this journal, Broué’s section will be particularly absorbing, written as it is in a way that almost makes you believe that the revolutionary forces in Spain could change history and win. But the second half of the book is just as useful, as it explores the fascist powers’ abuse of the Nonintervention Committee, which was set up with other European powers to guarantee no country would materially and financially support either side in Spain.

Germany and Italy ignored all its decisions and rushed arms, soldiers and other supplies to aid the military insurgency, while France and Britain did nothing. This made the bourgeois Republican and Communists’ liquidation of the revolution in an attempt to curry favour with the major Western European powers a sick joke. Témime also outlines the evolution of the new fascist state in the areas of Spain controlled by Franco’s troops, instilling its rule through brutal repression, propaganda in schools and society, and the birth of a new, single party with Franco at its head.

With its total victory over the Republic assured in March 1939 with the conquering of Catalonia and Madrid, this regime took control of the whole of the Spanish state. However, this fascist success was far from certain, and could have been averted, as The Revolution And The Civil War In Spain shows.

This book, along with Felix Morrow’s Revolution and CounterRevolution In Spain, Ronald Fraser’s Blood Of Spain, George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia and Andy Durgan’s more recent The Spanish Civil War, is a valuable resource for understanding Spain’s Civil War, and how the outcome could have been very different.