Revolution and reaction in Spain

Issue: 117

Chris Ealham

Andy Durgan, The Spanish Civil War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), £14.50

For all the thousands of books published on the Spanish Civil War, few studies of the conflict’s origins, course and consequences are as valuable and welcome as this current study. The series editors’ introductory notes explain that this short book aims to discuss historical debates and controversies and provide expert interpretation. All books in the series are accompanied by an annotated bibliography—in this case it is vast, and constitutes an important navigational tool for surveying the enormous literature on this subject. Also present are a chronology and a series of maps that provide a first-class introduction to the course of the war.

But this study is much more than a starting point. Writing with enviable economy and lucidity, Andy Durgan has produced a breathtaking synthesis based on his vast knowledge of the civil war and its historiography.

This study firmly roots Spanish events within the wider social, political, economic and cultural crisis of inter-war Europe. Within this perspective, the civil war was the Spanish chapter of a more generalised European crisis: in 1936 Spain was on the verge of the fascist abyss, a situation comparable with Italy (1922) or Germany (1933). In the preceding years Spain witnessed the sharp radicalisation of the right, reflected in the growing admiration among bourgeois and petty bourgeois sectors for foreign authoritarian models.

Aware of what had been happening elsewhere in Europe, the Spanish left was not prepared to go quietly to the concentration camps. Drawing inspiration from the armed resistance of Austrian workers in 1934, the battle cry of the left became “Better Vienna than Berlin”. Accordingly, the 1936 military coup met with a militant response from the working class, resulting in civil war.

It is clear then that Spain’s drama was part of a wider European struggle between competing political projects for liberal democratic reform, revolution and counter-revolution. The first of these had its moment during the Republic in the years before the civil war. The social democratic PSOE, the largest left wing party before the war, was firmly identified with the reformist project and inevitably became a key player during the Republic.

The PSOE leadership was implacably hostile to revolution. Its first leader, Pablo Iglesias, described the Russian Revolution as “tragic”, while the party press imposed a de facto news blackout on Russian developments, its main organ, El Socialista, first mentioning the Bolshevik seizure of power in the middle of March 1918.

The PSOE failed to understand the historic significance of Spain’s new regime. Longstanding divisions over issues relating to the nature of bourgeois revolution, and the relationship between democracy and socialism, came to a head within the party. While capitalism had made significant strides in the cities and in the countryside throughout the 19th century, one faction clung to the view that the Republic signified Spain’s long awaited bourgeois democratic revolution and that socialists therefore had to wait patiently for the time when they could make their own revolution.

The two most important factions were centred on Indalecio Prieto and Francisco Largo Caballero, both ministers in the first Republican government, and effectively they operated as two distinct political parties by 1936. Prieto hoped to use the PSOE to stabilise the new regime by providing it with the mass base that it lacked. Largo Caballero increasingly expressed the radicalisation of the socialist masses as the Republic failed to meet its reformist promises. His rhetoric led to him being dubbed the “Spanish Lenin” by his acolytes in 1934. However, as Durgan highlights, Caballero, as prime minister during the early part of the war, gave notice of his enduring reformism by curbing the revolution and reasserting the old state power.

Durgan provides an excellent discussion of the road to civil war and the vicissitudes of the Republic, outlining the key sources of conflict—the national question, the agrarian problem, church politics, military reform and labour struggles—as well as narrating events during the final weeks of the Republic. In what is a timely corrective to revisionist historians who seek to revive Francoist fables about the Popular Front being a Communist-led Trojan horse bent on establishing a Soviet-style regime, we see here that, in programmatic terms, the electoral alliance of 1936 was a recreation of the earlier republican_socialist coalition, albeit with a different set of component parts.

The second of the competing political projects—the revolutionary one—was given greatest expression during the first months of the civil war. Durgan analyses the anatomy of the Spanish Revolution, the scope of collectivisation, its geographical unevenness, and provides a compelling analysis of its demise. Unlike in Russia, there was no clear pole of revolutionary power in Spain, where the legacy of cantonalism, anarchist federalism and opposition to centralised revolutionary structures produced a myriad of dispersed foci.

The author is especially sensitive to the gender limitations of the revolution, noting how wage inequalities remained in many of the workers’ collectives. Nevertheless, he concludes that “this was a liberating experience, leading women to acquire a new self-respect and confidence, awareness of their rights, and more control over their own lives”.

While attacking revisionists for their misrepresentation of Republican politics, Durgan has clearly endeavoured to challenge the analysis of the most outstanding historians of the civil war—Helen Graham and Paul Preston being the most obvious examples in the UK—who are more sympathetic to the Popular Front. He challenges the view that the only logical strategy was one based on the Popular Front. The subsequent reliance on a conventional war strategy against an enemy that was always better armed led to the abandonment of revolutionary methods, such as the workers’ militias, guerrilla warfare or supporting nationalist insurrection in north Africa, on the grounds that it might upset the Western bourgeois democracies.

Durgan offers a precise discussion of the Soviet role in the war, a subject that has long been clouded by anti-Communist/Francoist distortion and revisionist historians. He locates the vertiginous rise of the Spanish Communist Party in terms of the crisis of the traditional left and the international isolation of the Republic. In the context of war, there were few demands from the Communist rank and file for clarification over its call for a “democratic revolution” rather than a socialist one.

Durgan compares this with the pre-1917 Bolshevik formula of a “democratic dictatorship of the working class and peasantry”. But beneath the rhetoric the Communist Party was masterminding a counter-revolution within the Republican zone. Durgan rejects the view that the assault on the revolutionary socialist POUM was related to pre-war divisions, explaining its virulence in terms of the offensive against “Trotskyism” in the Soviet Union, which intensified after April 1936.

While Durgan accepts the view that the civil war comprised a mosaic of conflicts, he nonetheless argues for the primacy of class. Accordingly, when, following the Popular Front election victory in February 1936, the oligarchy no longer felt itself capable of defending its interests within the structures of the democratic Republic, it embraced a new authoritarian counter-revolutionary project that would introduce a more savage exploitation of the working class, as well as offering a more felicitous structure for foreign capital.

This presupposed the slaughter of working class militants and a systematic purge of society, graphic in the rural south, where the social order was most challenged during the Republic. As the Francoist forces marched on Madrid during the first months of the civil war, a vicious repression was unleashed against real, potential and imagined supporters of social justice. Only the impact of labour shortages prompted a diminution of the slaughter, the scale of which actually shocked some Nazi observers.

As a corrective to revisionist claims that Francoism was not “genocidal” and did not seek to eliminate the left, Durgan argues that, in addition to the wartime carnage of around 100,000 executions, and the post_war repression that claimed the lives of tens of thousands more, a further 200,000 died of hunger and disease during the first years of “Franco’s peace”. That the overwhelming majority of these deaths were among the social constituencies of the pro-Republican groups revealed a “determination to obliterate a whole generation of political activists”. As in Hitler’s Germany, biological racist theories were invoked to stress the “alien” nature of the “defeated”, whose “foreign organic material” was a threat to Spanish racial purity.

The book concludes with a survey of the formation and evolution of the Franco dictatorship. Durgan depicts the regime as a compromise between the financial oligarchy and key conservative institutions, such as the church and the army, that combined contemporary fascism with the militant Catholicism of the Inquisition.

That all this is achieved in 140 or so pages is an impressive achievement, not least because each page is overflowing with penetrating analysis and insightful commentary.