Seventy years after the Spanish Civil War

Issue: 111

Interview with Andy Durgan

Spain, July 1936, has a double historical significance for the left internationally. There was Franco’s militarycoup which began the civil war and 40 years of fascist rule. And there were the counter-uprisings of workers,which overturned the coup in most of the important cities, delaying the final fascist victory for nearly threeyears, and creating a revolutionary atmosphere, especially in Catalonia. Andy Durgan spoke to IS about the way these things are seen in the Spanish state today.

How do the media and mainstream politicians in Spain today regard the civil war and the fascist years? My impression is that they virtually tried to ignore these things with the transition towards bourgeois democracy after Franco’s death in 1975. Are things changing with the seventieth anniversary?

Underpinning the transition to democracy was the ‘pact of silence’ which meant that the mainstream parties would effectively not talk about the war. This meant not that literature did not appear or that it was never mentioned in the media, but that those guilty of crimes committed during the nearly 40 years of dictatorship would not be brought to book. That is the opposite, of course, of what happened in Italy, Germany or other former European dictatorships. In a way it was similar to what was tried in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay (following the ‘Spanish model’), but even in these cases it could not be sustained and now there are a whole number of initiatives to punish those responsible for repression. But this has not been the case in Spain. Instead the idea was pushed, and still often is, that the civil war was a ‘war between brothers’ (sisters, one assumes, were not involved), where both sides committed atrocities and ‘made mistakes’—a war that has to be, above all, forgotten.

During the last years of the dictatorship the left defended the idea of a ‘democratic rupture’ after Franco’s death, which meant a complete break with the Franco regime, the dismantling of all its structures and removal of its functionaries. This would apply in particular to the repressive infrastructure: the paramilitary police, the army hierarchy and the secret services. This ‘rupture’ never happened, but another one did: the rupture with the memory of the republic, as a democratic and progressive regime that was overthrown by a bloody coup.

After Franco’s death the mainstream left increasingly accepted, however, that a peaceful and controlled transition to democracy could only come about through an agreement with the ‘reformist’ sectors of the former regime. This line was pushed by European social democracy, both to undermine the strength of the Communists and to avoid the further radicalisation of a mass movement which was already threatening more than just an enfeebled dictatorship. The Communist Party, equally uneasy about the very mass movement it had played a leading part in mobilising, believed it could guarantee its status as the main left party in the future democracy by reaching an agreement with sectors of the dictatorship and the mainstream democratic opposition. The party’s Eurocommunist leadership was convinced that by clever manoeuvres and alliances with the right it could carve itself out a central role in the new state.

Thus the Communist Party played a central role in demobilising one of the most militant workers’ movements in Europe at the time and guaranteed that Spanish capitalism would keep functioning as ‘normal’ despite minor reforms achieved through it accepting the hybrid democracy that now emerged. The effects of this demobilisation were devastating. The Spanish left has never fully recovered from the defeat. Nor did this acceptance of a pact with the remnants of Francoism benefit the Communist Party, which was soon eclipsed by a renovated Socialist Party backed up by millions of dollars from its European and North American patrons.

This ‘pact of silence’ about the civil war began to change after the PP won the elections in 1996, partly because the transition was now 20 years past, and both victims and those responsible for repression were now thinner on the ground but, above all, as a way of undermining the right, who were and are seen as the heirs of Francoism. The Socialist Party now ‘rediscovered’ the civil war. In recent years there has been an outpouring of books and documentaries (especially on regional television not in the PP’s hands) on the Francoist repression. Previously, both the Socialist Party and the PP had avoided taking an official institutional position on even recognising the rights of those repressed, of the hundreds of thousands who had lost their lives, liberty and meagre property. Now there has begun the tentative recognition and economic compensation for victims and their families. However, this recognition has been painfully slow, and few of those who could have benefited when Franco died 30 years ago have done so.

This change is not just down to politicians. There has also been growing pressure from historians and relatives. Younger historians in particular have increasingly become committed to investigating rearguard repression and the little-studied early years of the dictatorship. A growing number of relatives who previously had not taken up the question, either because they were not aware of what had happened to their parents or grandparents or even because of the fear that still persisted in rural areas, have now begun to demand justice or at least recognition of what happened.

The right have not been passive faced with this new interest in the crimes of their forebears. Revisionist accounts of the war, usually written by ‘journalists’, which resurrect all the old distortions of Francoist historiography, of unbridled red terror, savage abuse of the clergy and even the hoary old nonsense of a Moscow plot, can be found filling shelves of reputable book shops. The success can be measured by the fact that the most notorious of these authors, the former member of the ultra-left terrorist group GRAPO and now very right wing Pio Moa, has managed to sell tens of thousands of copies of his book on the ‘myths’ of the civil war. Most academic and left wing historians cannot compete with the revisionists, given the funds that clearly are at the latters’ disposal.

There was a great divergence within the Spanish left at the time of the civil war over how it should be waged. These are hinted at in Land and Freedom. Could you spell them out?

Often the great divide in the Spanish left during the war is presented as between ‘war and revolution’. This is wrong. The real division was over how the war should be fought: an ‘orthodox’ war or a revolutionary war.

Those favouring a war along orthodox military lines linked to the rebuilding of the republican state included the liberal republican parties, social democrats and Communists. The fact that the first two opposed the revolution and sought to present the republic as a ‘normal’ bourgeois democracy is hardly surprising. The Communists’ reasons for adopting this policy and the effects of their position are more complex. The underlying reason was the need for the Soviet Union to reach an agreement with the democracies against the Fascist powers. Stalin therefore did not want a revolution in Spain upsetting his possibilities of achieving this. He was even less inclined to support a revolution that was not led by the Communist Party. Thus the popular front—a broad alliance in defence of democracy—meant the ending of the revolution. The latter was central to the popular front project because it meant both bringing the armed forces under centralised state control and showing the world that Spain’s war was a war to defend democracy and hence worthy of British and French support.

It is worth considering, however, the different dimensions to Communist policy. Firstly, only the Communist Party, which grew massively during the war, was capable of imposing this policy. Its image as the party of the Russian Revolution, its centralised organisation and its militancy made it attractive not just to those wanting to re-establish republican order. Secondly, the fact that the Soviet Union was the only major power aiding the republic boosted tremendously the Communists’ image as defenders of the republic. Thirdly, the Popular Front, the idea of unity against fascism, ‘fitted’ with many people’s overwhelming conviction that fascism had to be stopped whatever the cost. Finally, it has to be remembered that the whole policy of ‘putting the war first’ was couched in a confusing, even pseudo-revolutionary language (‘the national revolutionary war’) and accompanied by the extensive use of Soviet imagery. This was especially the case during the siege of Madrid, the only time when the Communists used revolutionary methods to fight the war which, significantly, held up the fascist advance.

The revolutionary alternative was defended by the anarcho-syndicalist trade union federation, the CNT, and the small revolutionary socialist party, the POUM. Basically they argued that the revolutionary enthusiasm that had prevented the military uprising from being successful had to be harnessed to the war effort. This meant that the social revolution that had broken out in much of the republican-held territory had to be consolidated. The workers and peasants were no longer fighting just to maintain republican democracy but also to build a new society. By destroying the revolution and eliminating the politics and democratic structures of the militias, the republic undermined the morale of its most determined fighters.

A revolutionary strategy also meant a programme that could mobilise different sectors of the masses. At an international level, for example, it meant declaring the independence of Spanish Morocco and supporting a nationalist uprising in Franco’s North African rearguard—a policy, like so many, discounted in fear of upsetting the imperial powers. A revolutionary war also meant pursuing more flexible tactics, in particular guerrilla warfare, which was hardly used in the civil war despite the relatively favourable conditions for it.

The Achilles heel of the revolutionary left, however, was the question of power. Without a new revolutionary power based on democracy from below, the revolution was defeated. The central weakness of the anarcho-syndicalists was their belief, to use an apparently contemporary formulation, that they could ‘change the world without taking power’. The revolution for the CNT meant controlling the streets, the factories and the land. The revolution was a ‘fact’ for tens of thousands of anarchists. However, this missed the point that communications, trade, finance and, above all, military organisation remained in the hands of the reconstituted republican bourgeois set—a state which the CNT leaders even helped re-establish when they participated in government in a desperate attempt to centralise the war effort in the absence of any alternative of revolutionary power.

The POUM defended the need to build a revolutionary state based on workers’, peasants’ and fighters’ committees and for the construction of a red army which was both centralised and maintained the revolutionary spir it of the militias. However, it was too weak to win its line and ended up clinging to the CNT for fear of being isolated. (I discuss the POUM’s politics during the war in latest issue of the journal Revolutionary History.)

The counter-revolution led by the Communists, to the background of the purges of the old Bolsheviks in the USSR and slandering of all dissenters, particularly ‘Trotskyists’, as ‘fascists’, led to street fighting in May 1937. The CNT, fearful of undermining anti-fascist unity, backed down. As a consequence many of the conquests of July 1936 were undermined—collectivised land was returned to individual owners, factories were brought under state control, churches re-opened and workers disarmed in the rearguard. Thousands of revolutionaries were imprisoned and dozens murdered—including the leader of the now illegalised POUM, Andreu Nin.

The Communist Party grew very rapidly during the civil war and was also a very big underground force at the time of Franco’s death, but has declined enormously since. It used to call the revolutionaries ‘fascists’. Have its former supporters reassessed their views?

While the more honest sections of the Communist left have long since had to admit that the party ‘made mistakes’ or that the assassination of Andreu Nin was a terrible crime, the fundamental politics remain the same. This is hardly surprising, given how popular frontism is at the heart of the varieties of left reformism and social democracy that the different former and current Communist factions have espoused over the years. A more serious ideological offensive has been sustained by mainstream academic historians, largely ex-members of the CP. They have long ignored the question of the revolution or argued that it was a problem that had to be eliminated from the republican zone for the sake of the war effort. There is thus a general consensus in these circles that the popular front was the only alternative.

Among activists influenced by the orthodox Communist tradition an understanding of the civil war is generally not much better. Forty years of fascism, followed by social democracy trying to cover up the dictatorship’s crimes, added to the fact that the CP was the main opposition for many years, have meant that most people influenced by Stalinism identify with the heroic struggle against fascism and a radicalised version of popular frontism and little else. Defenders of the popular front may accept that the Communists’ methods of slander and repression were unsavoury but do not see that these methods were part and parcel of popular front politics that were based on the crushing of the revolution. There could be no rebuilt republican state without the ending of the revolution and this could not be ended by gradual peaceful methods.

It seems that the defence of the popular front remains as strong as ever among many British historians?

At an academic level, the most sophisticated defence of popular frontism can be found in Anglo-Saxon historiography, in particular the very impressive work by Helen Graham. She argues not only was the popular front the only strategy available for the republic, but in re-evaluating the Communist Party as having managed to form a ‘hegemonic cross-class’ organisation, it was necessary for the prosecution of the war. In particular, Graham argues the long-held view that the popular front was necessary in order to draw the ‘middling sectors’ into the war effort.

This raises various questions: firstly the nature of these so-called middling sectors and secondly the role of the middle classes in the fight against fascism. Graham includes in this first category white collar workers and peasants. These sectors were not homogeneous. The militancy shown by white collar workers in the large cities, particularly Barcelona, or by many peasants, and not just the rural proletariat, in the pre-war years suggests that they were winnable to a revolutionary alternative. Moreover, Marxist groups had already won an important influence among these workers. What can be more strictly considered as the middle class had shown themselves in the run-up to the war to be incapable of fighting fascism, if not as frightened of the revolution as the far right.

The other point worth considering, ignored by nearly all commentators, is what the Communist Party itself represented for its supporters. Despite the party’s success in pulling around it different groups such as professional army officers, petty bourgeois and medium peasants, its image as the party of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union meant it could hardly be perceived as just some form of supra-democratic republican party. As elsewhere, it seems clear that many Communist sympathisers saw the popular front as a tactic on the road to proletarian revolution. The very fact that Moscow and the Spanish party developed a convoluted explanation of what was happening in Spain, that the republic was a ‘democracy of a new type’
and that there was a revolution, albeit a ‘democratic’ one, under way can only be understood as a reflection of the reality that hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants believed they were fighting for more than a strict defence of ‘normal’ bourgeois democracy.

For anyone wanting to read updated histories of the civil war, the problem is that the alternatives to these often quite sophisticated studies by what can be considered ‘popular frontist’ historians are usually from the anti-Communists. Apart from being right wing, most of this material is pretty shoddy as history and dovetails with the revisionists in Spain.

A good example of this is the prolific American historian Stanley Payne, whose recent work on Communism and the war, although referring to much recent work on the question, repeats all the old myths in presenting ‘Marxism’ as some sort of homogenous totalitarian and timeless blueprint. He blames the left for the civil war and ends up arguing that the only way this could have been avoided would have been the establishment of an authoritar ian regime in 1935 by the reactionary Catholic party, the CEDA! While presenting the same overview as Payne’s, the collection of Soviet documents edited by Radosh and others, which was recently remaindered in some bookshops, contains some gems if you can wade through the more irrelevant material.

Unfortunately, new studies in English that present a different view to either the popular front or right wing anti- Communist views are thin on the ground. One exception is Chris Ealham’s excellent study of the Barcelona poor. Likewise the first English publication of Jose Peirats’ classic history of the CNT and the revolution is important. Although not written from a revolutionary point of view, the revised and greatly expanded edition of Antony Beevor’s history of the civil war provides a lot of ammunition for countering the popular frontist or conservative versions of events, especially in relation to republican military strategy and the treacherous role of foreign democracies, particularly Britain.

How does the legacy of the civil war affect current Spanish politics?

In different ways. Pushed to make a slightly more public stand, the right’s post-Francoist credentials are clearer than ever. Also events such as the 75th anniversary of the republic have had some impact, in that any celebration of the republic challenges, however mildly, the very basis of the monarchy imposed during the transition by the leftovers of Francoism.

Where it is particularly noticeable is in relation to the national question. One important effect of the transition and ‘the pact of silence’ was to legitimise the Francoist view of ‘one Spain’, of a unified and eternal nation. Most of the Socialist Party leadership have taken Spanish nationalism on board very seriously and are thus extremely hostile to any demands for greater regional autonomy, let alone self-determination. Thus the recent debate over a new Catalan statute or talk by the Basque government of opening a process that poses self-determination have been met with very hostile responses from the Socialists, especially in their southern strongholds.

The right’s reaction has predictably been even more severe. The PP has collected 4 million signatures calling for a state-wide referendum on the Catalan statute. This sort of provocation is part of a policy of mass mobilisation by the PP over the last year, which is unheard of for a supposedly democratic conservative party in Europe since the 1930s. Demonstrations of hundreds of thousands have been orchestrated by the PP over such diverse questions as opposition to gay marriage, defence of private education, opposition to the Catalan statute, opposition to any ‘concessions’ to terrorism and even the return from Salamanca of civil war documentation belonging to the Catalan government. The tone and nature of such mobilisations are curiously reminiscent of the movement organised by the CEDA and the church in the pre-civil war years, despite all the obvious differences—least of all, a civil war is not an imminent threat, of course.

It is important to understand that the transition was not the break with Francoism that it has been made out to be by the political mainstream; that, albeit under a democratic guise, in terms of how the ‘nation’ is perceived, the legitimacy of the monarchy, the continuing influence of the church, even the absence of a minimally decent welfare state, are all inherited from the dictatorship. Thus the fight for historical memory, even in the broadest sense, is a central political fight about the very nature of the contemporary Spanish state and democracy.

There are very different, revolutionary, interpretations of the civil war—in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom, in serious works of history by Pierre Broué and Emile Temime’s The War and the Revolution in Spain and Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain. How do these stand up in the face of these new arguments, and do they have an impact in Spain today?

The works mentioned are still very relevant and worth reading. It is a great pity that Pierre Broué’s magnificent history is out of print. Recent research does not so much undermine the revolutionary argument as present new insights and challenges. On the one hand, the opening of the Soviet archives has presented enough contradictory material to both reinforce the anti-Stalinist view and apparently weaken it. The popular frontists have, in particular, picked up on the incompetence and inefficiency of Soviet intervention, plain to see in the documentation available, to argue that Stalin was at least incapable of controlling the situation in Spain even if he had wanted to, or even that he was motivated by anti-fascism and little else.

Added to this has been a renewed attempt to discredit the POUM, not of course accepting that it was infiltrated by fascists, but more along the lines of arguing that its policy was ultra-left or ‘unrealistic’ and its role in the May events was treasonous. The fact that the trial of the POUM leadership in October 1938 did not lead to their execution is now presented as showing that republican legality was upheld and that the Stalinists did not have the influence that has been claimed. This whole line of argument involves erecting a series of caricatures of what the anti-Stalinist position argues: that the Communist Party was monolithic, that all its militants were automatons and that the republican government was at the beck and call of Stalin.

Of course the fact that the Stalinists were not completely hegemonic in the republican zone does not mean that their policy was not counter-revolutionary, whatever the subjective views of individual Communists, and that it fitted with the liberal social democratic perspective of its allies—above all, that it pursued a policy that contributed centrally to the republic’s defeat. Moreover, the ‘inefficiency’ of Soviet policy does not mean that it was not motivated by selfinterest—in this case the pursuit of collective security against the fascist powers.

On the other hand, there is plenty of documentary evidence that confirms the pernicious nature of the Stalinist intervention, so much so that a series of anti-Communist texts now argue strongly that Stalin sought to establish the first example of a ‘people’s democracy’ in Spain. However, this conveniently overlooks that the priority of Soviet policy was an agreement with the West, an agreement which would never have been reached if Spain had been converted into a satellite power of the USSR.

Other important new works which help understand the dynamics of the revolution include work on local history, for example, on the anti-fascist committees and on the experience of collectivisation, by both Spanish and foreign historians, which have deepened our understanding of the nature of the revolutionary process. Even hostile sources have to admit, for example, that collectivisation was ‘surprisingly’ efficient and, with few exceptions point to the active involvement of masses of workers and peasants.

In particular it is worth mentioning the work by Chris Ealham on the social and cultural base of Barcelona anarchism. This is particularly important in that it demonstrates the popular basis of revolutionary ideas and activity as part of everyday working class resistance to the priorities of the system. The lessons that can be drawn from his work go well beyond the specific experience of proletarian Barcelona.

As to the impact of the revolutionary standpoint in Spain itself, this is more complex. We are faced with three major problems: the pact of silence has effectively meant the civil war is generally not studied at any depth in schools and is treated superficially in the media. The influence of Stalinism historically on the left and the weakness of the non-Stalinist revolutionary left have, as mentioned above, made this situation worse. It is striking, for example, that Orwell’s book is far more influential outside Spain.

Your own research has been on the revolutionary left and the POUM. And you sometimes speak at meetings on the subject. What sort of response do you get from the left?

The reception Land and Freedom got was very revealing in that it proved popular with young and anti-capitalist audiences (not with academics however!) and still does. One point that was frequently raised by many younger activists was that they were simply unaware that there had been a revolution at all in 1936. The organisational weakness of the revolutionary left today means that the possibilities of reaching a larger audience are limited. Thus whether the magnificent experience of the revolution, and not just the resistance to fascism, can be learnt is completely tied to the task of rebuilding this left.

For those on the radical and libertarian left who seek to challenge reformism, the debate over the civil war is not just of academic interest but full of more general lessons about how change can come about, the relationship between war and revolution and working class self-activity.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign is the interest that the POUM often provokes among younger activists. Obviously Loach’s film has a certain amount to do with this. This may make orthodox Trotskyists nervous but the reasons why some young people are interested in the question are extremely positive for the revolutionary left. What the POUM represents for some of the new generation is a revolutionary alternative to anarchism, reformism and Stalinism; recognition of this by revolutionary socialists in Spain today is important, regardless of the particular weaknesses in the POUM’s politics. The tradition of the POUM and
the writings of its principal leaders, Nin, Maurín and others, remain the most important legacy of revolutionary Marxism in Spain and can still be learnt from if placed within their historical context.