I have a lot of sympathy for the view that the Spanish Civil War was a terrible tragedy. The attempts people make to impose on events a spin that supports their ideological priors are all less convincing the more one knows about the conflict. Nevertheless, imperfect knowledge is not complete ignorance, and there’s a lot to learn from the sad story of the Spanish Republic.
The Spanish Civil War is an important event in world history, and it deserves the attention it receives and more. It is also a very complex item, so I’m posting a timeline and a list of the cast of characters towards the bottom of the transcripts. I’m going to start by discussing the broader historical context and then stepping through the history itself. Then I’m going to talk a little about the various positions people take about the events in question before rapping up with some general considerations. I won’t have time to discuss the internal politics of the right wing coup or the final days of the Republic. These are also important things to consider, so you should read all the books. I’m going to focus on the socialist and related anarchist movements in Spain and what they meant for socialists in the anglophone world. One excellent politically neutral book that focuses on the military side of the Civil War is Antony Beevor’s 1982 “The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939,” and I lean on it a great deal in the discussion that follows, but if you could only read one book about the Spanish Civil War, to understand the ideas that drove the Republicans, there is no better book than Helen Graham’s 2002 “The Spanish Republic at War 1936-1939.” It’s long, but after you’ve read it you actually know something. Helen Graham has done for the Spanish Civil War what Soma Marik did for the Russian Revolution. Most people, when they talk about the Spanish Civil War label all the main groups and figures some ideology or other and use that to explain their behavior, but Helen Graham does the Spanish justice by giving us a deep dive not just into the political identities involved, as we understand them, but into the ideas, innovations, experiences and motivations of groups and individuals. She treats them as living agents making their own history.
So, from the beginning...
The defining event in the formation of the Spanish monarchical state was the reconquista, a struggle to reclaim the Iberrian peninsula from the Umayyad Caliphate who took power there in 711 AD. The reconquista required from the Spanish nobles that they orient the economy towards wool production for export in order to get the necessary money to conduct the war. The claiming of peasant land for sheep grazing led to soil erosion and the emisseration of the farming peasantry (Beefor, p4). Catholic ideology, which proscribed usury, prevented the development of a capitalist class in the early modern period, and the discovery of the new world instead of undermining the authority of the Spanish crown reinforced it with a steady stream of silver and gold wealth from the colonies, at least at first. It is said that enough silver was mined from Potosi, in present day Bolivia, to build a bridge from where it was mined in South America to Spain (Galeano). Unlike the wealth that San Domingan Slaves provided to France, the precious metals flowing into Spain didn’t take the form of commodities, so they spurred inflation in Europe which inspired more mercantile activity. All of that wealth that flooded into the mercantile interests of England and France leading to the end of monarchical rule in Europe and the rise of capitalist economies over the old feudal ones, that wealth came from Spanish colonialism and the dispossession of the peasants in support of a war of conquest against the ethnically and religiously othered Muslims. Furthermore, the resulting social hierarchy justified itself with religious zeal, and instead of being undermined by the protestant reformation the Catholic faith in Spain was radicalized and mobilized for an inquisition so terrible it is now known as “the” inquisition. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella forced the Jewish people living in Spain at the time, some 800,000 people to either convert or leave. Among those who left was the grandfather of Baruch Spinoza who was famously one of a very few people in the 17th century, and one of the first in the modern era, to say that there are no persons destined by god to rule over everyone else. Today that idea is paradigmatic, believed by almost everyone, so I guess the Spinoza family got their revenge somewhat. There’s a good name for a punk band: Spinoza’s Revenge. Please someone make that happen and then I’ll interview you on the podcast maybe if you’re cool.
Spain had a short lived liberal republic in the early 19th century, with wars flaring up for political freedom every decade or so leading to a managed democracy that favored the nobles, the landlords and a rising class of political bosses (caciques). The Republic that was founded in 1873 was very weak and found it very difficult to resolve any of the tensions in society. There was a steadily growing localist and libertarian movement, accompanied by strong separatist movements in Catalonia and in Basque country. The deep oppression and communal lifestyle of the Spanish peasants made Spain fertile ground for the Anarchist philosophies of Bakunin and Kropotkin. Kropotkin believed that the communal peasant way of life he witnessed in the distant, isolated, rural parts of Russia, represented an evolutionary advance that was superior to modern mass culture (McLaughlin, p. 99-108). It’s no wonder that this ideology was popular in rural areas of Spain and Italy, nor is it any wonder why the more industrialized northern Europe was where Marxism and socialism had more of a following. Incidentally, by the time of the Spanish Civil War a lot of these rural Kropotkinists ended up internally displaced and having to move into the cities to find work in factories. Kropotkin overestimated local social bonds, and underestimated how national and international communities are important in peoples’ lives. Indeed, international solidarity was an important part of how Republican Spain defended itself. The importance of the Spanish Civil War for Anarchists is clear: it’s an example of Anarchists in state power, with all the apparent contradictions that includes. The peasant Anarchist ideology, with its millennial faith in the coming collapse of all state power, didn’t stop Catalonians from improving agricultural output in Aragon or from organizing factories and supply chains. If they had started these experiments in peacetime they may have overcome the inefficiency of the new system, but they were only possible because of the war. Their main problem was securing capital investments and trade deals: how would they replace old equipment if they couldn’t borrow money from the banks? For that they needed the Republican state. And slowly through the course of the Spanish Civil War the anarchist leadership began more and more to participate in that state. Unfortunately, because of the lack of hierarchy in the anarchist unions there was no mechanism of accountability when Catalonian anarchists began making compromises with the republic for the sake of the war. In the absence of mediating institutions, elections, recalls and so forth, anarchists who felt betrayed could only take to the barricades, which as we shall see they did eventually.
Spain at the dawn of the 20th century was 64% illiterate, and 66% of people worked the land in a primitive, labor intensive way (Beevor, p.9). Poverty was so great that half a million people emigrated between 1900 and 1910. They had a king, “lucky” Alfonso 13. Labor relations of the peasants must be understood as nearly feudal, with laborers essentially stuck on the land that was devoted to monocultures for export. Local bosses could demand the local peasants vote according to the interests of the great landlords. This socio-political hierarchy was by and large reinforced by the church, which maintained the idea of a divine order that put the peasants at the bottom. This is why there was such widespread anticlerical feeling. Local communal bonds meant a great deal more than did the Spanish nation to many living in the rural parts of Spain, and this broader social force constrained the Anarchism of the rural peasant, focusing it on the local dimension, and served therefore as a hindrance, though not in all places an insurmountable obstacle, to solidarity actions across regions. The geographical isolation of the peasant villages made it easier for landlords to suppress unrest (Graham, pp. 3-5).
Spain stayed out of WW1, and made lots of money expanding its industrial productivity to provide for the rest of Europe, which was busy fighting. But production could not keep up with demand and the resulting inflation fell hard on the laboring masses. High unemployment caused mass migration to the cities. In 1923 a military coup lifted Miguel Primo de Rivera into power putting an end to constitutional government. General de Rivera led some important military disasters in Morocco, then a Spanish colony, and pushed forward with costly modernization efforts, the building of highways and hydro-electric dams. The earlier loss of colonies in Cuba and in the Philippines lent to Spanish nationalism all of the resentment of a lost greatness that we find in Germany regarding the loss of WW1, or in France today regarding the loss of Algeria, or in the Southern United States regarding the loss of the Civil War. There was an explosion in the deficit and runaway inflation. Primo enlisted the UGT, basically the socialists’ union, into a system of labor arbitration where state functionaries would arbitrate labor disputes, and this experience may explain some of the aversion to revolution, some of the faith in gradual political reform, that many in the UGT old guard demonstrated throughout the 30s as well as the aversion the anarchist union, the CNT, had to the state formed by the collaboration of socialists and liberals (Graham, p. 13). In 1930 a wave of protests and a general strike swept Primo de Rivera from power. The king fled. A republic was declared with a land-owning lawyer Alcala-Zamora serving as Prime Minister. The fledgling democracy was led by a numerically slight liberal group which depended on the numerically superior Spanish Socialist Party, the PSOE, for its legitimacy (Graham, p. 23). International banks withdrew their money from Spain. In power, the liberals were ineffective at mobilizing mass support and at reforming the old monarchical institutions. The Republic of 1931 was reform minded and decisions were made at the top, and they left implementation to the existing feudal establishment, which promptly sabotaged it.
Starting in the 1930s alongside big state agricultural developments, peasants rapidly joined trade unions in massive numbers: the two largest of these being the anarchist CNT and the socialist UGT(Graham, p. 6). The two unions roughly represented a strain that rejected participation in state power, the CNT, and one that sought it out, the UGT, but the two parties both held a debate around the issue of participation in the state, and the real differences between the two are to be found in the conditions of their constituencies. The CNT was prevalent on the Eastern coast, while the UGT was more influential in the North, in Asturia and Catalonia, though even these categories are generalizations that only approximate who the people supporting these organizations were. Though the left had achieved the dream of several centuries, a democratic Republic, the right successfully obstructed reform legislation in parliament, with the result that working and poor people felt little relief. Boy does that sound familiar! The impasse impacted the left, and the competing identifications, of communal autonomy versus industrial centralization, created serious divides that would weaken the movement. In the Summer of 1931 the Republic put down a rent strike in Barcelona, convincing many there that the new form of government was much the same as the former oppressive one. The labor arbitration system that the Republic set up did not cover unskilled workers, who were left to be organized by Anarchists of the brave direct action type, people like Buenaventura Durruti and Garcia Oliver in their Los Solidarios who with others led the FAI, the Iberian Anarchist Federation which was a hard Anarchist block within the CNT. Los Solidarios were a kind of “three musketeers” or Robin Hood of Spanish labor struggle through the 20s and 30s. Where’s their feature films, cartoons and comic books. Seriously, if that’s a thing hook me up!
In December of 1931 a strike in the village of Badajoz descended into a cycle of violence. The Civil Guards, a part of the military dominated by reactionary ideology, killed a local man when they opened fire on striking workers. The locals then lynched several members of the Civil Guard, who retaliated. The General in charge of the Civil Guard was Jose Sanjurjo, a veteran of the Moroccan wars. Sanjurjo was demoted by then Minister of War Manuel Azana, and that is when Sanjurjo began plotting the coup that erupted in 1936. This event occurred in the broader context of expanding public violence between right wing religion and a radicalized left wing movement: it was the era of church burnings. In a move reminiscent of the French National Assembly’s attacks on church power, the Republic suppressed the church subsidy, and just as in France the Catholic church began to advocate disobedience. To be sure, the Catholic church was much more conservative in Spain than it had been in France, but the point remains that people who identified as Catholic did not feel openly hostile to the Republic until the state attacked and demeaned their religion. Laws barring religion in education were propounded from Madrid, but the Republic itself didn’t last long enough to implement them such was the violent reaction they produced. Catholic reaction became an organizing principle attracting small landowners in central Spain in reaction to Republican anticlericalism, and in 1933 CEDA, the Spanish Federation of Right Wing Groups, was formed with a self declared membership of 700,000. Though Catalonia negotiated a limited autonomy from the Madrid government in 1932, negotiations with the more conservative and religious Basque country for a similar arrangement were slowed by mutual mistrust (Graham, pp. 32-33). The Basques eventually supported the Republic, sort of, in 1936 after the experience of having independence completely blocked by the right wing in power.
The slowness of land reform and inability of the Republican government, which was broke, to respond quickly to the demands of striking workers, who had to be pacified with arms for lack of anything else to give them, eventually led to the Socialist Party splitting from the liberals. The government was premised on ruling coalitions, and the liberals only other potential partner was the conservative CEDA. From this period on, a debate raged within the CNT and the UGT about whether or not to engage in electoral politics at all. Rank and file workers typically did not see a contradiction between direct action and electoral work, but the leadership was split because any time they got close to power, the tradeoffs they had to make made them unpopular. As in Germany, Socialists had participated in a weak government and were blamed for its failures. In response a good number of Anarchists rejected the idea of working with the state power altogether. On top of these problems the socialist party PSOE split over Catalan independence. Catalan socialists split officially from the PSOE and formed the USC, or Catalan Socialist Union. Communists committed to Catalan independence formed the BOC, or Workers and Peasants Bloc. In 1935 the BOC joined with the left oppositionist Trotskyist Izquierda Communista to form the POUM, or Workers Party of Marxist Unification. Leon Trotsky opposed the joining of the left opposition with a nationalist group, so when Stalinists said the POUM was Trotskyist they were wrong and either didn’t investigate the matter or didn’t care. Anyone they disagreed with could be called a Trotskyist, and being a Trotskyist was enough to get you shot. During the period before the Civil War, socialists were in office but their ability to govern was successfully sabotaged by the right wing, and this largely explains why during the civil war it was so difficult to rally to the Republican cause. Broad sectors of society, especially in anarchist Catalonia, did not believe much in the Republic, and even when faced with the immediate threat of Franco it was hard to defend her at times from criticisms from the left some justified and some not. The Republic would be plagued with indiscipline in the ranks of its militias, and that indiscipline no doubt comes in part with the ideological education the liberal failure of the recent past had provided. Attempts to unify left organizations in a single institution, the Workers’ Alliance, failed everywhere except in one place, Asturia. In Asturia, in the North of Spain, because of the massive industry and nearness to ports, the two trade unions’ leaderships in the CNT and the UGT had been forced to work together and this familiarity bred trust.
In October of 1934 somewhere between 15 and 30,000 workers in Asturia rose up. They occupied government buildings, shot important notables and circulated their own currency (Beevor, p. 31). General Franco was ordered to put down the rebellion. 1000 or so people died, and 30,000 were jailed. The accompanying mass strike was led by Largo Caballero and his Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), though Caballero later denied in court having helped with the uprising. Having left the government the year before, and causing a split in the PSOE, Caballero’s group declared that a Bolshevik revolution was necessary. Unlike the Russians, the Spanish Bolsheviks did not have a mass democratic movement that they could ride into power. Anarchist councils already existed in the Unions, and they were disinclined to wanting to take state power. Caballero has been called the Spanish Lenin, but it is doubtful that Lenin would have been so foolish as to broadcast an intention to seize power while leading a small tendency in a larger political party that preferred to defend private property. Not only that, but disastrously the PSOE did not prepare for a revolution, and as much as anyone were completely unprepared to face the officers coup in 1936. Largo Caballero was all talk (Graham, pp. 45-46). The Stalinist Spanish Communist Party took credit for the Asturia uprising to aid their recruitment, and astonishingly claiming responsibility for the disaster in Asturia did attract recruits. The times were desperate, and people were desperate to try anything. The broader progressive movement correctly saw that the far left revolutionaries were bellicose faineants, that is lazy and irresponsible, and so the idea of a Bolshevik style revolution was itself broadly rejected. Aside from that, the next two years saw a widespread movement to unite the left to beat the conservatives. Personally, I think people in Asturia got tired of all the left infighting and decided to take initiative, believing that Caballero would be able to rally the rest of the coalition to their cause. They were tragically mistaken.
Though it stirred the passions of revolutionary minded Spaniards, the rebellion in Asturia was a disaster. The conservative government took advantage of the opportunity to suppress the measure of local autonomy Catalonia had. After this uprising, the political right wing, including conservatives, right liberals and fascists, came to identify the socialist cause with top down socialism, with the domination of a small clique, and part of the far left truly seemed to identify with such a project. Another part of the far left rejected top down socialism without envisioning a democratic state. Racist ideology began to mix with the natural revulsion to left wing authoritarianism in the context of a collapse of confidence in democratic institutions. Do you want fascism? Because that’s how you get fascism. More promisingly, in the aftermath of the failed leftwing revolution, the socialist party was able to rally the masses to a new left electoral front. Manuel Azana became a political superstar touring the country in open air mass rallies. Largo Caballero could see that he was discredited, and before he would agree to the organization of a united left electoral strategy he insisted that the Stalinist Communist Party be included, so that he could blame them later when reform didn’t work. I am sure he regretted this decision later when the communists successfully isolated him from the movement through 1937 (Graham,p.64, Beevor, pp. 258). In any event, had the Republic lasted long enough to be reproached for too slow reforms, Caballero would have shared their discredit.
In February of 1936 Spain had its last free elections for 40 years. The left popular front very narrowly won the elections. With a precarious mandate, the fledgeling democracy was besieged by competing claims. The right wing wanted justice for church burnings, and the left wanted land redistribution. 60,000 Peasants in Badajoz seized land and started working it in the context of a general inability of the market to finance agricultural activity (Beevor, p. 44). Deadly clashes erupted between the Civil Guard, a militarized police force, and peasant groups. Social conditions were reaching a fever pitch of violence, and the Republic didn’t seem capable of playing the role of referee. Looking back it seems clear that the country was on the edge of civil war, but the Republican state found itself unprepared when the ax fell.
Everywhere around Spain the left was rallying to the idea of unity. Rank and file Spanish laborers and socialists saw no contradiction between electoral work and direct action. And yet, the left leadership remained divided at the top. The socialist party was split between people who wanted a strong central government in Madrid and those who wanted an autonomous Catalan zone. The Stalinists aligned themselves with Catalan Nationalism and Largo Caballero’s revolutionary wing of the PSOE, all while recruiting from young urban and middle class groups. The allure of the Soviet Union came from the image it presented as modern and futuristic. I’m posting a link in the transcripts to some contemporary Soviet art of the period (https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/art-and-the-russian-revolution). Think full luxury space communism, or what people in the 70s thought future space travel would be like. In the Spring of 1936 the Socialist Youth Federation joined the Stalinist Spanish Communist Party (PCE), and they followed Caballero’s political line, which was this: the revolutionaries would block socialists from participating in the government as far as possible so as not to have to take the blame for what that government would do. With no money and no real control over the economy, the Republic was stuck much the same way it was in 1931; for lack of a carrot all it could really offer the masses was the stick. The government thus formed was more afraid of the masses than it was of the right wing in the military, and so they never demilitarized public order. The army was in charge of policing the country, and in not challenging this arrangement, and not having a government that had strong relationships with the democratic masses, it was assured that when the right wing coup came the Republic would be defenseless, or almost. In the first 48 hours after the right wing coup was launched, each little region was dependent on the spontaneous self defense of the workers to fight back the reactionary rebellion.
In July of 1936 a group of Spanish army officers launched a military coup throughout Spain. The coup should have been easily foiled, but the incompetence of the Spanish Republican state allowed the right wing military coup to gain a foothold. The workers sensed that this was a life or death moment, having seen for themselves in Asturias in 1934 what the right wing generals had in mind for them. The army was in control of public order, and so the coup played out within much of the organized domestic police apparatus. The liberal prime minister Santiago Quiroga refused to arm the workers, which meant that workers were armed in a limited and clandestine manner in a few places. The crucial first few hours were thus wasted by Quiroga who decided to pretend the coup was not so bad instead of arming the workers whom he feared. The earlier failure of the liberal party to organize the lower middle class, the petty bourgeois shopkeepers and so on, meant that these layers of the population had found conservative and Catholic ideology, and in occupied Spain they submitted to the right wing coup. In a military coup soldiers will typically pause before they begin to murder each other, weighing carefully which side is likely to win, and so to succeed would-be coup plotters must create the impression that their victory is a certainty. The coup began on Friday the 17th of July under the command of General Mola in Morocco. In Morocco officers and soldiers were hardened in battle against an insurgent Moroccan population and were easily won over to the cause of the right wing generals. A full 48 hours later the Republican government finally faced the fact that the Army could not be considered loyal, and Jose Giral, having just been pushed into the position of Prime Minister over Quiroga, dissolved the army by decree and finally ordered the Republic’s arsenals should be distributed to the workers. In the meantime all throughout Spain spontaneous clashes occurred as each army unit waivered regarding its loyalties. It’s a good moment to open a map as you listen along, and I’ll link to one in the transcripts (https://www.lonelyplanet.com/maps/europe/spain/). In places where armed workers arrived first, garrisons were easily won over to the side of the Republic, as was the case in Barcelona and Madrid. In places where determined reactionary officers could call their men to order, or seize radio stations, entire units joined the military coup, as happened in otherwise Republican Seville, Zaragoza and Oviedo in Asturias (Graham, p. 94). In Valencia the military garrison was split, and so the fighting went on for a full week until the CNT finally got the upper hand (Graham, p.95). More than a third of Spain’s territory passed into the hands of the rebels, in traditional conservative strongholds such as Navarre and Alava, all of Old Castile, and after intense fighting also Galicia (Graham, p. 95). On more than one occasion civilian authorities who assumed they had the army’s loyalty declared their allegiance to the Republic and then were arrested by the rebellion and jailed or more likely shot. The rising failed to capture the Navy. The armies of the right wing coup massacred civilian populations, even in places where there was no resistance to them at all, so as to collectively punish the laboring classes as such for having dreamed of equality (Graham, p. 116). In Navarre 2,789 were executed (Beevor, p. 90). In Badajoz the right wing Lieutenant Yague had the local population collected in the bull rings and shot in batches, killing somewhere between 6 and 12 thousand people over the course of a few days (p. 91). In Seville the rebels murdered 8,000, another 10,000 in Cordoba, and 7,000 in Malaga (pp. 91, 93). An estimated 200,000 people in all were murdered by the right wing armies, compared to some 38,000 victims of the red terror that came after and in response to the right wing’s attacks. Victims of the red terror fell mainly in Madrid and Catalonia during the first few months after the coup (Beevor, p. 87). The nationalists continue to purge society in the decades that followed the fall of the Republic in 1939. Quoted in the Graham, the right wing General Mola explained why: “we have to terrorize, we have to show we are in control by rapidly and ruthlessly eliminating all those who do not think as we do.” (p. 117). As in Russia, white terror expressed itself as arbitrary and total, punishing entire populations, while red terror was by and large retaliatory and focused on the agents of Spain's ongoing millennial brutality against the poor, and oftentimes these agents were priests (Graham, p.85; Beevor, pp. 81-101). We shouldn’t excuse any of these acts of violence, but we owe the victims a good faith effort to objectively understand what happened. The violence of the right was directed from the top, and the violence of the left was resisted by left institutions and leadership. The anarchist union, the CNT for instance over the course of the war increased centralized control of its chapters in part to curb such violence, though it must be admitted their ideological prejudice against institutional authority most likely slowed their hand (Graham, p. 88). Graham comments: “But not only had the military coup fragmented the army. By inducing the collapse of Republican government at every level it also massively facilitated the upsurge in popular political violence which followed that collapse. This sudden explosion was primed by rage at what was seen as the rebels’ attempt to put the clock back to old-regime order by force, after their failure by electoral means. Although the intensity of this post-coup popular political violence varied across Republican territory, it was everywhere instigated by urban workers and landless labourers, who directed it overwhelmingly at the sources and bearers of the ‘old power’- whether material (by destroying property records and land registries) or human (the assassination or brutalisation of priests, Civil Guards, police, estate bailifs, and shopkeepers associated with speculative pricing and other exploitative practices). There is a clear link between post-coup popular violence and per-war conflicts” (Graham, p. 85). In the end, the red terror was a key reason that the Republic fell to the fascists, because it inspired a spontaneous grass roots effort among Catholics in the United States to stop America from intervening to aid the Republic (Beevor, pp. 240-242). By the time clear battle lines were drawn a couple weeks after the beginning of the coup, the Republic had a regular military force of maybe 90,000 men, while the rebellion held a force of 130,000 including 40,000 Army of Africa veterans (Beevor, p. 79).
Republican Spain at this point was governed as an uncoordinated federation, with most government functions being carried out by local committees, except in Madrid. Though collectivization did occur in some places, it was by no means uniform. In many places property rights were protected. Even if you don’t read any of the excellent books I’m talking about you should watch Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom: about halfway into the movie there is a scene following a republican victory in a small village the local notables debate land collectivization, and that discussion distills so much of the political debate of the time and the century. Across all left organizations, the proximity of Madrid to the rebel armies focused everyone in that region on the need for centralization of government in defense of the free Republic. Across Catalonia the liberation of local peoples from centuries of despotism inspired resistance to the movement in Madrid for centralization. At the same time, Catalonia and Aragon could have declared their independence right then and there, but they didn’t for the sake of facing the common foe (Beevor, p. 106). The war exacerbated the already existing political divisions, but there was a real tension in the coalescing priorities of the Republicans between their immediate situation and their ideological priors. In Catalonia Anarchists became the police. They became the police. The anarchists. In Madrid the socialists patrolled to prevent the spilling of reactionaries’ blood. The world seemed to be tilted on its head. The difficulty of coordinating the local committees and rallying them to the defense of the Republic was a key factor in how the Republic was lost, and without the Republic all of these local initiatives were to be crushed by the reactionaries.
The Republic had to attempt to form a government that its radical base could believe in, and that is why the complete buffoon Largo Caballero was appointed prime minister on September 4 of 1936 . The loss of Seville, Zaragoza and Oviedo cut off a large region in Northern Asturias that would have supported revolutionary change (Graham, p. 129). The red terror had failed to liquidate the ruling class, but had succeeded in alienating it from the Republic and scaring away potential foreign aid. The Stalinist Spanish Communist Party, the PCE took the lead in state building: people who say they were dominated by the comintern are just wrong (Graham, pp.174-181). It was the PCE that welcomed in the Spanish Army Officers who had not supported Franco, giving them a way to acquire some kind of social acceptance in the Republic. They organized the Fifth Regiment which was to be the core of the Republican Army. They set up medical services, nurseries, literacy drives and film showings (Graham, p. 180). They were trying to accomplish what the left liberals and socialists had failed to do in the early 30s: to unite society in a democratic project of reform (Graham, p. 214) . The rivalry between the PCE and the PSOE, that is communists and socialists, has been exaggerated in order to give fodder to an ideological battle in the US and Great Britain, but more on that later. Unfortunately for the most part these PCE initiatives didn’t do much outside of Madrid until later in the war. Look, I’m not a Stalinist, and ultimately I have strong criticisms for what the Stalinist Comintern and the PCE did in Spain. I think you already know I’m not a fan of Stalin if you’ve listened to the other episodes of this podcast. Wait until we tell the story of Ukraine. Seriously just thinking about it right now pisses me off, but the PCE did a lot of good and was somehow allowed to show initiative (not a common thing amongst Stalinists of the period). Criticism is better if it has a legitimate claim to objectivity, and the PCE as a political project was correctly focused on doing whatever it took to beat Franco, not so much taking orders from Moscow as accommodating the comintern where necessary. When in November of 1936 Stalin’s agents in Madrid asked that the Trotsky associated POUM be excluded from the government, the Spaniards accepted the decision without a fight because none of those present were particularly invested in sticking up for a very small party with a base that was Catalan nationalist. In other words the Spanish were not dominated by the comintern: they had their own reasons for abandoning the POUM (Graham, p. 198). Apart from the PCE, the ruling parties in Catalonia and Madrid were still divided over local autonomy and the centralized state, still held a lot of grudges from the bitter decades in the wilderness they had all just passed through. These social divisions would contribute to the doom of the Republic.
To equip and feed an army requires economics, and economics requires international support typically. The rebellion did not start out with a pre-arranged guarantee of aid from the fascist powers, Mussolini and Hitler, but these figures soon rallied to the side of the Spanish rebellion. Because the Spanish Navy stayed true to the Republic, the insurgent officers had to ask, and promptly received, help from Hitler to transport the Army of Africa into Spain by air. It wasn’t until the summer of 1937 that Franco became the leader of the right wing movement, but long before then he was Hitler’s favorite. Mussolini supplied the rebellion troops and supplies. Hitler supplied airplanes and pilots, who received in this way the training that made them such a powerful force in WW2. Americans were not supposed to aid either side of the conflict, but we now know that Texaco supplied oil to Franco nearly free of charge throughout the war (Hochschild). Despite everything, the rebels could not have won without support from Hitler, Mussolini and Texaco. For nearly a decade in the early 20th century, fascists regularly bombed civilian population centers throughout Europe, beginning in Madrid in August of 1936, nearly 3 years before England and France could find the political will to intervene.
The European masses were split politically, just as the masses were in Spain. The ruling parties in England and France decided not to help defend Republican Spain, in part because they didn’t want to support a polity they saw as dominated by murderous left wing revolutionaries, and in part because their respective domestic politics favored disengagement from possible foreign interventions. In England there was strong public support for pacifism, and the wounds of WW1 were fresh. France’s government, led by the socialist Leon Blum, supplied some minor material aid to the Republic at first and then stopped. Blum was concerned that supporting Republican Spain might inspire a conservative backlash that could jeopardize his domestic reform program (Graham, p. 125). France at any rate was politically split as always, between reactionaries and radicals who all agreed that the problem was the liberal governments of Europe, with perhaps the Spanish Republic included. Instead of buying weapons through a central authority, the Republic ended up relying on purchasing of weapons piecemeal through representatives of the multiple committees that governed Spain at the time, who were bidding against each other and driving the prices up. Presenting a united authority for purchasing military equipment was part of what drove Madrid in the direction of greater centralization of government functions. The Republic had to grant autonomy to Basque country in order to win their cooperation in the war, but that cooperation only went so far. The Republic had to purchase Basque steel on the open market with cash in hand, and production was not centrally oriented to wartime production until very late, the summer of 1937. Add to all of this the fact that while middling and lower class Basques were won over to fighting a defensive war for the Republic, the large industrialists in Basque country were on Franco’s side and they sabotaged industrial production (Graham, pp. 248-250). The only great power left to help the Spanish Republic was the Soviet Union.
I want to frame Russian involvement in the Spanish Civil War by discussing briefly the broader picture of Stalin’s geostrategy. Stalin’s main motivation in this period which culminated in the show trials was fear of his enemies. He was afraid the Poles would tell the world about his forced starvation of the Ukraine starting in 1932. He was afraid that Trotsky’s left opposition would challenge his standing as the leader of the communist movement. He was afraid that Germany or Japan were going to invade Russia. He thought that Japan was angling to begin an imperialist project in Ethiopia, and so Stalin helped arm Mussolini as he invaded Ethiopia. In 2017 we were blessed when a great novel of the Harlem Renaissance, a lost masterpiece, was finally published for the first time. Claude McKay’s Amiable with Big Teeth is a fictional story resulting from a synthesis of real events. In this book, which you should all go read, McKay tells the story of how in the mid 1930s Harlem was the site of a movement to raise money to aid the Ethiopian war effort against Italian imperialism, and how Stalin’s Communist Party worked to co-opt and then sabotage that movement. It’s a novel, but the story it tells is based on real events. There really was an Ethiopian envoy who spoke to churches in Harlem in a good faith effort to raise money for the defense of Ethiopia. The white dominated CPUSA in New York City really did work to co-opt and undermine those efforts. This gives you a good idea of how the international solidarity networks built off of the prestige of the Russian Revolution became tools in Stalin’s chauvinistic geopolitics. Radicals today are fond of saying that the “so-called” democracies of the world should have resisted fascism in Spain to avoid WW2 (they are right), but they don’t as often say the world should have defended Ethiopia. I don’t know why that is, but it’s remarkable. Stalin saw Spain as an opportunity to potentially gain another soviet satellite, a way to tie down Nazi Germany and Mussollini whom he feared and a way to bleed the rival tendencies in the international communist movement. Though ultimately Russians did end up fighting, Stalin’s policy in Spain was to provide advisors, to organize international brigades recruited from around the world, and to supply weapons, the worst of which were reserved for the anarchists and the independent socialists in the POUM. The political line was that in Spain private property rights had to be protected to win over the Spanish middle class to a defense of the republic. That was not a bad tactic for winning support, and the Spanish Communist Party membership ballooned in this period.
In October of 1936, just as the first shipments of weapons and tanks from Russia were arriving in Spain, Franco was poised to attack Madrid. Ideological splits on the left had real consequences for the Republic. In the Fall of 1936 Antonio Mije from the Stalinist Spanish Communist Party, PCE, urged Largo Caballero of the Socialist Party to have the militias begin digging trenches. Caballero told Mije that Spaniards were too proud to hide in the ground. And that is part of why the Republic lost Toledo (Graham, p. 140). Caballero continued to reject common sense advice if it came from his political rivals. In other instances, events pushed political action. Negrin as Treasurer and President Azana pushed for a greater centralization of authority (a) to slow down and halt the red terror that was ruining any possibility of lifting the practical trade embargo that British and French neutrality effectively imposed on Spain, and (b) to muster a sufficient defense against the far right which was committing genocide in rebel held Spain (Graham, pp. 159-161). Negrin was also pushing to nationalize industry in response to the looming shortages caused by the embargo imposed on Spain via European “neutrality.” In the chaos that followed the coup many locals set up their own police patrols, but these completely informal patrols were soon imitated by opportunists, bandits and fifth column fascist saboteurs. When the Republic forced all such patrols into a formal government institution it was a correct move in the direction of stamping out abuses and affirming democratic accountability by police forces (Graham, p. 162). During the siege of Madrid, with widespread and well founded fears of a fifth column of right wing nationalists ready to murder the Republic, Republican officials tasked with transporting military prisoners massacred 1200 of them at Paracuellos. It doesn’t seem as though they were ordered to do it, but the officials in charge turned a blind eye after first hearing about it (Graham, p.193). The drive to centralize the security apparatus and impose discipline came in response to events like this. These were strong enough reasons for someone like Largo Caballero, the Spanish Lenin, to support the professionalization of the Army, the re-establishment of municipal authorities and the imposition of legal limits on, though not outright abolition of collectivization, and further convinced the anarchist trades union, the CNT, to enter the coalition government taking four cabinet positions (Graham, pp. 163, 164). Juan Negrin, a leader in the Socialist Party, wanted to end land expropriation altogether, but could not for the moment. The rapid gains of the libertarians in August had to be curbed but not ended in November to secure the support of the middle class as the new Republic tried to lead society into a life or death conflict, and at any rate these policies were barely implemented at first.
In early November the Madrid government made the mistake of relocating from Madrid to Valencia. They assumed that Madrid would fall, and it showed. The move communicated to the world that they didn’t expect to hold Madrid, and if they didn’t hold Madrid they might have lost international recognition. As the ministers of industry and trade, both of them from the anarchist CNT, and one General Asensio, the chief of the general staff (remember that name - General Asensio) were leaving Madrid they were stopped at a checkpoint by the del Rosal column, the largest of the anarchist militias (Alpert, p. 50). The guards at the checkpoint ordered the ministers to return to Madrid or be shot as cowards. The group backtracked and found another route to Valencia.
In the Battle of Madrid an amateurish force composed of civilian militia, armed workers and foreign volunteers successfully fought back the far superior forces of Franco. General Miaja was put in charge of defense as the government fled, and his briefing had detailed instructions on how to retreat but said nothing of the defense of the city (Graham, p.168). It’s not clear why Miaja didn’t side with the rebels; four years prior he had told Azana that the socialists should all be shot. But the flight of the government had an odd effect on the population, who rallied to the defense of the city with renewed enthusiasm. Miaja was caught up in the general high emotion, and pleased to be so important all of a sudden. He accepted a membership card from the Communist Party, remarking at some point that maybe he could be for the Republic what Franco was for the rebellion. It must be nice to be oblivious in that way. He ended up on the Republican side by chance, but after Madrid his loyalty to the Republican cause was unwavering.
Buenaventura Durruti began his rebellion at the age of 21 when he joined in a railway workers strike in 1917 (Paz). Durruti was the kind of anarchist who organized assassinations, and he had traveled widely throughout latin America including Cuba. In 1936 he led 3,000 armed men to Madrid in order to defend the city. He died in a senseless gun accident, and the Republic claimed him as a martyr. To bolster the war effort the CNT ascribed to him the slogan, which he never actually said, “We will renounce everything except victory.” (Graham, p. 179).
In 2016 Houghton Mifflin published Adam Hochschild’s “Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.” It’s fine. If you want to read about Hemmingway engaging in war tourism and hitting on actresses while he acts tough, then you could read the Hochschild. If you want to actually gain some kind of knowledge about the Spanish Civil War you should skip it and read the Graham. But Hochshild does have all these pleasant little anecdotes to tell, like the time that Paul Robeson sang for soldiers at the front in the frozen battle of Teruel, or the quote from Camus that the title of the book is from. I’ll tell you that quote at the end of the podcast, and then one or two more things from Hochschild and then you can ignore the book entirely and not miss much. In the Battle for Madrid Franco focused his forces on the University City and the Model Prison. Hochschild writes about British volunteers setting up sniping positions in the lecture hall of the Philosophy department and using “the thickest books they could find: metaphysics texts, nineteenth-century German philosophy, and the Encyclopedia Britanica. (In another building, French volunteers were sheltering behind parapets of Kant, Goethe, Voltaire and Pascal).” (Hochschild, p. 84-85). I guess metaphysics is good for something after all!
It would be wrong to say that Stalin was not invested in a Republican victory, and given the very real threat Hitler posed to the Soviet Union the amount of military aid given to Spain was substantial. Half of Soviet military aircraft production in 1936 went to Spain (Graham, p. 153). People make a big deal of the Soviet Union taking the Spanish gold reserves and then manipulating the exchange rate to double their profits, but at the same time they extended credit to Spain even much later in the war when it was clear Spain was not going to be able to pay them back (ibid). People talk about the communist party’s commissars in the military, but there’s not much actually scandalous about that. The commissars in the Spanish militias predate the special relationship between the comintern and the Republic, because the anarchist peasants in those militias didn’t trust the few Army officers who hadn’t joined Franco’s rebellion (Graham, p. 146). Although Stalin saw Spain as an important place to defeat or stall fascism, which he understood as a threat to his interests, he was obsessed with winning the PR battle to attract help from or at least to not irritate Great Britain and France. If he could draw the great powers into an outright fight against Hitler, then it would help him to better secure his own western border.
Stalin’s obsession over how he was perceived by the world made him prioritize public relations over real victories. The military advice his agents gave the Republic certainly turned events in this direction. Real battles were waged so as to create real experiences that could more or less fit into exaggerated versions of what really happened. Failures were explained by fictitious conspiracies to sabotage that were often corroborated by testimonies extracted via torture (Beevor, p. 306). The loss of one of the victims of the show trials in particular was an enormous blow to the Republican cause. When Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky was purged so were his ideas about military strategy (Beevor, p. 196). It just so happened that Tukhachevsky was a pioneer of what is known as the pincer attack, which was the best strategy given the tank technology of the time. This strategy was the tactic that allies used in WW2 to drive back Hitler. In a pincer attack a concentrated line of tanks rapidly pierces the enemies line and then encircles the enemy. Time and time again the Republican forces would execute a rapid advance and then hunker down instead of completing the encirclement, precisely because Russian officers did not wish to be found guilty of ideological aberration and then die in a show trial. This happened at the battles of Brunette in July of 1937 (Beevor, p.282), Saragossa in August and September of 1937 (Beevor, p. 298), Teruel in December of 1937 (Beevor, p. 316). In the Battle of the Ebro, the Republic rushed troops to the other side of an enormous river where they could not be easily provisioned late in the war when the Nazis clearly had air superiority. The plan was audacious and ruinous and suicidal. In choosing offensives in these places, Russian advisors were trying to win the Public Relations battle to show that the Republic could win. That PR battle was already lost. Americans and Brits were too pacifist, and too ready to believe exaggerated stories about red terror. The French were too divided. Stalin was content to sacrifice the best of the international movement in pointless and doomed engagements to improve his image. Confidence men like Ernest Hemmingway were on board with this agenda, until years later when For Whom the Bell Tolls revealed the terrible truth. Hemmingway lied about the men fighting the Civil War while they died, and by feeding this machine of illusions he bears some responsibility for its consequences, and then “honored” their memory with criticisms after their deaths. Unlike Hemmingway, George Orwell actually fought as an infantryman for the Spanish Republic, was shot in the neck and then returned home to tell the complicated truth, that Spain’s only friend Russia was exploiting the conflict to bleed Stalin’s enemies in the left movement, the anarchists and independent communists. No wonder that discipline was a problem, or that soldiers on the Republican side mutinied when given orders to suicide missions. The Stalinists in Republican Spain soon set up camps for deserters and other political subversives, one of which was called Camp Lukacs, but it wasn’t named after the famous Hungarian Marxist thinker by that name. The purges and show trials followed them to Spain. One of the Russian advisors sent to help the Spanish Republic was Antonov Ovseyenko. Ovseyenko stormed the Winter Palace in 1917. He opposed attempts to break up the anarchist communes in Catalonia, and for his bravery he was recalled to Moscow and executed (Beevor, p. 156). This was around the same time that Stalin’s agents sabotaged an effort to grant Morocco independence in exchange for Moroccan fighters withdrawing from combat against the Republic (Beevor, p. 155). Antony Beevor cites Russian State Archives which show Antonov-Ovseenko was working with the Catalan government and the national committee of Morocco to exchange financial support and independence for Moroccans starting an uprising against Franco. To his discredit, Largo Caballero was cool to the idea. Moroccans were fighting on the side of Franco because he had promised them independence, while the Republic had not wanted to lose its colony. The Moroccans were some of the most feared and skillful soldiers on the field, and Franco encouraged them to commit acts of mass rape as punishment for areas that were sympathetic to the Republic. Stalin didn’t want Moroccan independence because he thought it would upset England and France, whom he was trying to be friendly with. I sympathize with those who say that the Republic needed a revolution against the bourgeoisie, especially when the bourgeoisie were such easy partners with Stalinists who violated every civil right except the property rights of the big landowners.
Working against the centralizing tendencies was the blossoming of an anarchist project centered in Catalonia.
The government in Madrid saw these initiatives as a liability. In January of 1937 the Socialist Party and the Communist Party made an alliance so as to better unify and coordinate the defense against Franco (Graham, p. 201). Victorio Codovilla was an Italian who had represented Argentina in the comintern in 1924, and then served as liaison for the comintern in Spain during this period (Drachkovitch, Payne). Codovilla was pushing to unite the PCE and the PSOE against Stalin’s wishes (Graham, p. 205). Stalin didn’t want to exacerbate tensions between the two historically opposed groups. Was the PCE plotting against Caballero as Beevor seems to suggest? Maybe, but Stalin was not. Caballero was playing Stalin’s tune, wooing the great powers with all the right kind of pro-private property talk and policy. Caballero was undermined by his own incompetence, already displayed in his handling of the Asturia crisis in 1934 and confirmed in the poor to negligible defense of Malaga which fell in February of 1937 with a resulting massacre of at least 4,000 civilians at the hands of the reactionaries. Caballero was blamed for appointing Carlos Asensio Cabanillas as chief of the General Staff. Asensio had had 30 militiamen shot for desertion despite them being untrained, and in case you didn’t remember his name he was one of the ministers stopped by a CNT roadblock as they fled Madrid. The anarchists had threatened to shoot Asensio for cowardice if he didn’t return to Madrid. The Malaga disaster plus all the rest of this in Asensio’s past led to popular pressure to have him removed, which happened in February of 1937. Of course Caballero claimed that all of this, including the fall of Malaga, was part of a treasonous plot by the communists, the anarchists, the POUM and so on (Beevor, p. 202): it provides ready material for people of any ideological tendency to find proof that whoever they oppose is wrong about Spain. The common one I’ve seen is that the Stalinists were manipulating the PCE in order to take over the Spanish Republican government. Now, had the Republic won the war Stalin would likely have tried something like that, but if you compare the history of Soviet Ukraine to that of Soviet Poland you will see how important geography and time can be to relative degrees of Stalinist domination (Snyder, p. 369). In the early 50s the Polish communists were able to stop a purge, the so-called Doctor’s purge, that was going on in Moscow from spreading to Poland. It doesn’t seem likely to me that Spain would have been another Ukraine. I could be wrong, but we’ll never know because we cannot replay history with one or two variables changed. Contrary to Beevor, Graham doesn’t see any communist plot against Caballero, and I tend to agree with her. At any rate, she had a lot more resources to draw on for her story in 2002 than Beevor did in 1984, and people who just read what Caballero’s supporters were writing probably got the impression there was a conspiracy against him.
Catalonia, the region of Spain around Barcelona, was the site of the most audacious social and political experiments. Hochschild gives a pretty good overview of what was happening, complete with the impressions the scene made on Charles and Lois Orr, two Socialists from Kentucky on their honeymoon: “Barcelona’s Ramblas was dazzling,” she wrote... ‘Red, yellow, green and pink handbills and manifestos floated about our feet. Bright lights on… cafes, restaurants, hotels and theaters lit up red or red and black banners saying Confiscated, Collectivized, CNT-FAI or Union of Public Performances.’ Throughout Republican Spain, more than a million urban laborers and some 750,000 peasants were now in businesses or on farms newly controlled by their workers. In towns and cities the 2,000 enterprises involved included not just factories but ranged from warehouses to flower shops. Thousands of big landowners and urban businessmen fled to France. Nowhere had the old order been overturned more thoroughly than in Catalonia, where workers had taken over more than 70 percent of all places of employment. There was still a Catalan regional government, but real power lay in the hands of thousands of workers’ collectives. It seemed to Charles Orr that these collectives ran everything: ‘They opened clinics and hospitals in lush private villas… Every automobile in the street was decorated with the initials and colors of one or another workers’ organization. There were no more private cars.’” (p. 53). The collapse of the state that followed the officers’ coup led in July of 1936 in Catalonia, as it did everywhere in Spain, to a contest for power fought out in the streets. The elites of Catalonia were generally in favor of Catalan independence, and so they supported the workers’ militias in their fight against the ultra centralist rebels. Once the fighting was over, the anarchists found that there was no state authority. What now? Just the previous May the anarchists had held a conference where they “affirmed that each political philosophy should be allowed to develop the form of social coexistence which best suited it” (Beevor, p. 106). In practical terms this seems to have meant developing anarcho-syndicalism where they could and not challenging the liberal government. The President of Catalonia at the time was Lluis Companys, and he publicly declared that the anarchists had all authority in Catalonia, but that if they would still accept his assistance, he would help them fight the reactionaries. In order to unite in the fight against the military rising and to defend themselves from the Marxists in government, CNT leadership acquiesced to sharing power, and on the 21 of July they took up the departments of defence, transport and public order on the Central Anti-fascist Militia Committee, the CAMC (Graham, p.218). Though the threat of Franco was real, it’s meaning was slow to change the libertarian predispositions of Catalans. By September they had agreed to dissolve the Militia Committee and join the Generalitat, and by October they had joined the Madrid government. In the moment after July 1936, with the CNT’s armed forces in control of the physical space, they felt confident that as they partnered with the Generalitat that they would be the senior partners (Graham, p.220). This nonresistance to liberal governance was an explicit rejection of the Leninist idea of creating a dual power and then on Lenin’s version of Leninism riding a democratic upsurge into state power. The system of collectivized production had certain inefficiencies, maybe in better times they could have been worked out. Collectivization certainly got blamed for certain failings that were actually just caused by the war, but the need for centralized planning was felt everywhere and it gave the liberals the advantage of speaking to felt needs as an opposition. What could not be made to happen in a few months in the Fall of 1936 was the establishment of workers councils over and above the organizations that already existed. When Felix Morrow blames the anarchists for selling out the revolution, he is repeating the error of Liebknecht and of the original Blanquists: imagining a small group with nothing more than a correct idea can freeze the waterfall of history and command society. It’s easy to see the political failure of the POUM, their political isolation from the movement, in the wider context of the tragedy of the fall of the Republic, as signifying a path not taken. But the POUM embodied all of these contradictions even in its internal politics. They were right to denounce the show trials, but that hardly helped anyone in the fight against Franco. They did call for revolution, but they also publicly declared that the POUM would “uphold [the middle classes’] economic claims… within the framework of the revolution” (Graham, p. 236) and then also tried to join the liberal Republic, for much the same reasons everyone else did. The mass of the POUM’s support was not loyal to the left opposition or to Andreu Nin, but to the Catalan nationalism of the BOC, the Workers and Peasants Bloc that had joined Nin’s much smaller group in 1935. The former BOC members were loyal to the POUM and BOC leader Joaquin Maurin, who from the beginning of the conflict was in a jail in rebel held territory (p. 236). In these circumstances the POUM could not expect anything beyond political isolation.
There was hardly any distinction between the Catalan liberal Generalitat and the PSUC, a Catalan nationalist and democratic socialist party headed by Joan Comorera, who saw a merger with the liberal Esquerra as an opportunity to get the upper hand over his rival party, the independent communist POUM. The PSUC experienced an influx of new members, attracting small tenant farmers and sharecroppers who were shocked by certain libertarian excesses, or criminal opportunism depending on your point of view. Peasants were indignant at the CNT’s grain requisitions, and small farmers were resistant to collectivization. This was the majority tendency in Valencia and Catalonia, where collectivization efforts focused on industry (Graham, p. 223). In nearby Aragon some 75% of land was collectivized, and single families were allowed to keep as much land as they could work without hiring labor (Beevor, p. 112). Production in Aragon went up by a fifth. Interestingly, the part of Aragon around Teruel in the west was where the CNT was strongest, and those areas had fallen to Franco. In the more rural Eastern part where there was not previously a strong CNT presence, anarchist militia, not locals, collectivized this land; notwithstanding, they didn’t meet with much opposition. The anarchists outlawed wage labor, and so people accepted collectivization as the new law of the land, until requisitioning began and then people resisted.
Within the government of Catalonia liberal and communist political power soon overcame the position of the anarchists. This has often been described as a communist and liberal plot backed up by the force of the increasingly powerful comintern backing the Madrid government. This version of events ignores what the Spanish masses were actually doing. There was a growing movement against anarchy because of the terrible war against Franco. The old liberal idea that the state’s purpose is to protect the lives of its citizens was pressing and urgent in the lived experience of the Spanish people, but also the loss of European imports and large parts of Spain’s agricultural potential increased internal displacement of refugees and compounded the food crisis over time. The harvest of 1936 was very good, but it only went so far. The crisis began to sharpen in the first months of 1937. The Stalinist PSUC and the liberal Esquerra, the Catalan counterparts of the PCE and the PSOE, felt the need to centralize food distribution. There was a clear need for rationing, identified by both the CNT and the POUM (Graham, p. 256). Barcelona was overwhelmed by refugees fleeing the horrors of Franco’s Spain. The liberal communist government disbanded the anarchist supply committees, not all of whom were double dealing. They thought that just as in Russia under the New Economic Policy, allowing the peasants to sell their grain on the market would discourage hoarding. There were a few problems with this. Catalonia was a net importer of grain in a market that was now largely cut off from foreign supply. Freeing the grain market hence did nothing to increase supply or reign in speculation, inflation and the expanding of a black market which were already a problem, but the Generalitat became identified with causing these problems. The Catalonian Generalitat finally replaced the supply committees with groups that did not understand local needs and supplied them instead of from product expropriated by anarchist committees, with what the government could afford on the market, which was less and less. When the government did crack down on the black market it sparked further resentment in the population because it meant clearing out street vendors and offending powerful and ancient smuggling interests. Locals in Barcelona might have family in the nearby countryside they could get farm products from, but the refugees from other parts of Spain did not. In order to make the food distribution work well enough to keep most people alive in a fair way, the security apparatus had to be centralized. In March the state consolidated security forces under a single command and outlawed the worker’s patrols, which continued anyway. Disarming the patrols was a slow and occasionally deadly process. To poor people living in Barcelona, these Republican policemen felt exactly the same as the policemen who had helped evict rent strikers before in 1931. The impression grew that the Republic was not worth defending. The split in the Republican forces was coming to a head.
A protest movement grew, led by the CNT, FAI and the POUM. The situation worsened throughout 1937 reaching a nadir with a large price hike on April 14th. The Catalan police, while investigating the murder of a UGT leader and PSUC member Roldan Cortada arrested several CNT leaders and ended up in a shoot out where they killed Antonio Martin. Martin was a longstanding anarchist, and had gone from being a smuggler to being a CNT customs agent. The increasing political isolation of the anarchists gave the liberal government a foothold to begin closing in on the factory committees. From Graham: “By April 1937 the Generalitat was refusing to certify factory councils’ ownership of exported goods tied up in foreign ports pending the resolution of legal suits lodged by former owners” (p. 264).
On May 3rd a group of Republican police seized the Telefonica in the Plaza de Cataluna. The Telefonica was the communications hub of the region and the anarchists had occupied it since the coup in July of 1936. Losing the telefonica effectively isolated the CNT from the union control committee and meant they could not directly listen in on conversations between the Catalan Generalitat and the government in Madrid (Beevor, p. 263). Up until that point the Republic had more or less tacitly allowed the Anarchist seizures of property in Catalonia. The Anarchist militias on the Aragon front had to choose between standing guard against Franco on a front that was quiet for the moment, or returning to Barcelona to fight the Republic. That is the Spanish Civil War in microcosm. Within 24 hours word of mouth had mobilized the entire city. Barricades went up all around the center of Barcelona with Catalans, refugees and international volunteers taking sides or ending up on sides almost at random. In reality, the Republic couldn’t stand on its own without the help of the Anarchists, wherever that led politically, but nor could they fight Franco without carefully managing scarce resources, a task made impossible by ongoing anarchy in Catalonia. The version of events according to which Stalin and the liberals crush the anarchists just to win the great powers over to supporting the Republic is only half true: the conflict in Barcelona was driven just as much by local needs and politics. Rather than describing the May days in Barcelona in terms of local pawns in the thrall of the soviet union, Graham describes the divide by its local dimensions: “The political temperature rose further as Roldan Cortada’s funeral turned into a demonstration of state power in the form of a long march past of armed police and troops. While this reflected middle-class fears that the recent violence might herald a return of the feared paseos [anarchist red terror], the blatant rehearsing of the state’s repressive capacity and moral panic inducing editorials in Barcelona’s liberal republican press (including Treball, the PSUC newspaper) were fatal components in the accumulation of social and political tensions… The assault on the Telefonica focused the resisters’ energies on the city centre where all the political and economic machinery of government was concentrated - in close proximity to the most volatile of popular neighborhoods, the Barri xines (literally, ‘Chinese Quarter’), which had long constituted the front line between ‘respectable’ and ‘outcast’ Barcelona. Indeed, the force of the initial May explosion is explicable only if one bears in mind the longstanding connection between the ‘outcast’ city and the CNT. While the appearance of the barricades constituted an act of conscious ‘political’ contestation, the CNT’s direct action was also mediating more amorphous, ‘pre-political’ forms of popular resistance. The CNT was, once again, functioning as a lightning conductor in inner-city Barcelona, transforming both a shared history of persecution and the perception among the city’s marginalised of the connection between state action (public order, food supply and so on) and the brutality of daily life into generalised support for street action as active protest ‘against the state’. This was what confronted liberal Catalonia and its police force in central Barcelona on 4 May.” (pp. 266, 268). What’s more, the CNT controlled anti-aircraft guns from nearby Monjuic Hill, from which they could have bombarded the government buildings in the city center (Graham, pp. 268-274). CNT leadership scrambled to end the crisis without bloodshed. Garcia Oliver, an important anarchist leader during the defense of Barcelona during the July coup and a close comrade of Durruti during the brutally violent labor struggles of the 1920s, gave an impassioned appeal over the radio for a ceasefire. In that speech he discusses arriving in Barcelona and kneeling to kiss the forehead of a fallen anarchist, and then further on kneeling to kiss the forehead of a cop. The speech was believed to be given under duress, or it was mocked as ‘the Legend of the Kiss,’ which was the title of a popular Opera, or it was denounced as a betrayal, but Oliver and his comrades in CNT leadership were working to avoid the very real possibility that Madrid would have to dispatch military units to put down an uprising in Catalonia, a region whose industrial production the Republic could not afford to lose especially as Franco’s forces began making progress in the northern Basque country. In the event, the CNT’s anti-aircraft guns remained silent, and the Republic was spared further mass internal bloodshed. The group in the Telefonica surrendered, and soon enough the city was pacified. The anarchists could not continue their rebellion, because with their leading figures on the other side of the barricades, they had no backup chain of command to direct their activities. On the Aragon front the anarchist line held, barely. CNT action in Barcelona remained defensive, despite the POUM leader Andreu Nin’s active agitation urging the anarchist leaders to side with their rank and file members on the barricades. When it became clear the CNT leaders would not join an open rebellion against Madrid, the POUM also agreed to a ceasefire. Concerning the political path taken by the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War Graham summarizes the process in this way: “Certainly for some the war had reinforced pre-existing views in favour of modifying anarcho-syndicalist practice to allow the incorporation of the CNT within parliamentary politics. But for many more -although they did not consciously moot it, still less articulate it in public - the war’s overwhelming practical imperatives had greatly problematised ideological resistance to centralised forms of organisation. Yet most of these resources remained in liberal hands. This, plus the limited capacity of CNT organisational forms to integrate and centralise, saw the force of attraction exerted by the liberal state over anarcho-syndicalist leaders increase as the war itself escalated. The very real needs of the war effort saw both CNT and FAI leaders increasingly incorporated into the governing machinery of the liberal state, leaving isolated and uncomprehending sectors of their own cadres and social base whose daily experience led them to continue to resist its encroachment.” (Graham, p. 278).
From early in this podcast, from as far back as the discussion over Louverture’s suppression of the Moise rebellion, I have tried to point out that there are always tradeoffs to be made when one wields power. Our left movement today has no real sense of that because it has not held power in our lifetimes, but there is a history where the left has held power that we can learn from. By studying that history we can better understand power: what it is and how to get it. But we can also learn humility: people in the past, people like Garcia Oliver and Karl Kautsky, were not absolutely free, they could not snap their fingers and create a world where the trade offs they made were entirely pure or free from any downside. But they could make the situation better. They refused to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. They are not saints, but they are also not devils. It is untenable and unrealistic to continue thinking about politics as if it were a comic book where there are good guys and bad guys. We have to think of the grey areas, and begin being helpers instead of would-be saviors.
The great powers were not going to come to assist the Republic. In the end the Republic won the battle for the telefonica. Maybe had the anarchists more energetically entered the Madrid government, unified their own police force, centralized production in Catalonia, maybe they could have held onto some of their gains at the expense of other things. Maybe they could have convinced Madrid to expand the guerrilla war against Franco. Maybe the Republic could have held out longer had they chosen a different path, had they chosen to affirm the Anarchist zones prerogatives, or given Morocco its independence, but if that’s the case probably Hitler doesn’t invade Czechoslovakia until Spain is settled anyway and events just get delayed. Or if the Stalinists had sent better or more weapons to Spain, but likely they couldn’t without compromising their own defense against Hitler later. Then they lose Spain and Russia to fascism. Or if French workers had organized a blockade of Hitler’s weapons, but that may have caused a civil war in France whose outcome was deeply uncertain. All of these possibilities seem very unlikely, but they are more likely than that the anarchists should stop being anarchists or that the liberals should stop being liberals in the span of just a few months. We shouldn’t understate the importance of international geopolitics in shaping the conditions the Spanish Civil War was waged under, but we should understand what happened in Spain as being driven by the actions, will and political calculations of Spaniards, who after all were not puppets of Stalin, Churchill, Satan or Trotsky.
The debate around the Spanish Civil War, and its meaning for the English speaking world is a topic worthy of a whole ‘nother podcast, but the issue basically functions as a Rorschach test. What people say about it usually says more about who they are than it does about real events. Very few commentators on the Spanish Civil War pay close attention to the political debates or ideas that drove the Spanish in the 1930s, and Helen Graham has offered us an antidote to the culturally chauvinistic attitude of left pundits that doesn’t center the Spanish in their own conflict. She rightly points out that centering our own politics, using Spain as an example of why we are right about whatever, without considering what the Spanish thought and did, is a kind of cultural imperialism. In the transcripts I’m linking to a brief talk she gave in 2010 along these lines (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UcoZzWWQIk). The anarchists will say many contradictory things as usual, but mainly they will see in the Spanish events a firm rebuttal of top down socialism, its bankrupt capitulation to bourgeois liberalism. Stalinists will see the failure of anarchist indiscipline. Trotskyists will see a rebuttal of top down socialism, a failure of anarchist indiscipline and a missed opportunity to revive real proletarian revolution against Stalin. The success of the Catalonian communes and Aragon farming collectives, the socialization of the land and factories, really does vindicate the practicality of a certain kind of anarchism. Those communes could not continue to succeed without a connection to a world market, and those factories could not be best mobilized to the war effort without centralization. The Stalinist show trials really did sap the democratic legitimacy of the Republic: the overbearing way the PCE drove decision making, especially regarding where to fight and what to report, really did work to delegitimize the Republic. The Republic and it’s liberal champions lacked a support base both among the Spanish people and the international community. The Trotskyists and the POUM really didn’t have a strong social base, and weren’t going to be able to summon a revolutionary democratic upsurge beyond Catalonia out of thin air. At any rate Largo Caballero had already branded the Leninist idea as a lot of empty verbiage, which it often is. The explosion in the membership of the communist party during its propaganda campaign for bourgeois democracy and the protection of private property really did mobilize the middle class and the youth in support of the Republic. The bourgeois government really did fail to defend itself by arming the workers, who as individuals and small groups were the frontline resistance to the generals coup, especially in the crucial first 24 hours after the coup. The Republic and the left failed in the decades leading up to 1936 to attract key constituencies in the small landowners and shopkeepers, and exacerbated the alienation of Catholics to the Republican project. The Spanish Republic, and what was democratic in it, could have been defended with robust support from liberal England and France, the earlier the better, or even if these international powers had been serious about stopping foreign aid to Franco, but in staging military engagements to lure this aid from England and France the PCE dominated Republic was sabotaging the war effort for the sake of Soviet propaganda. Stalin’s agents did make unnecessary sacrifices of the Republic’s military and materiel for the sake of empty and useless propaganda. The POUM was right to denounce the show trials, which with the murder of Antonov-Ovseyenko, Tukhachevsky and so many others, highlighted the abandonment of civil rights by a communist movement in crisis. All of these things are true. All at the same time.
Helen Graham distills the problem down to the difficulty the Republic had in “how to instill war consciousness and, linked to that, an idea of the ‘necessary state’ in the differing social constituencies’ (p. 129). The anarchist communes, separatist and revolutionary movements placed competing claims on the Republic that it was ill equipped to mediate given the immediate crisis it was born into. In large part, it was this failure of the Spanish republic to own itself, to have trusted leadership and committed membership that led to its downfall. Those are the subjective conditions for what happened. There was much that the Republic couldn’t change on the international scene. On the world stage there was a collapse of international solidarity: it was not just the French, American and British governments that failed to respond to the Spanish struggle against fascism. The French, American and British people, aside from a tiny minority of brave volunteers who fought for the international brigades, were all split about what to do, if anything, about fascism and Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini and about Spain. They were split and polarized and neutralized by a prevailing loss of faith in democratic institutions, an overpowering illiberalism, a growing pessimism regarding democracy and human rights that cut across ideological lines of right and left, and a strong isolationist and pacifist mood. What happens in the world is the most just thing that can be. What the most just world possible is going to be is something we will continue to struggle over, maybe forever. What happens in the world is also a product of what everyone wants, or will put up with. In the 30s everyone wanted a great mass of contradictory things. They got a massive contradictory outcome, and it was not the greater community that benefitted, but rather those whose convictions were the strongest that overcame all the rest. There seem to have been enough people of good will to have been able to resist the fascists, perhaps well enough to prevent all of Europe from erupting into war, if a dozen or so decisions had been made a different way, but the divisions in the international progressive movement ultimately proved insurmountable. The fascists on the other hand demonstrated an unlimited and unwavering solidarity across national differences. The parallels with the present moment could not be more striking.
Whenever I approach this material I initially feel a little confused. The facts don’t seem to fit whatever narrative I bring to them. And then slowly as I progress a more unified theorem develops, and I feel I’ve learned something about my own politics. I encourage you to do the same: the material will reward whatever time and effort you give to it. Engage with this material, and let it change you. Then come back to it every few years. I leave you with the Camus quote from Hochschild I promised you: “Men of my generation have Spain in our hearts… It was there that they learned… that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.” (Hochschild, p. xvii).
monarchy abdicates and military dictatorship ends
Asturian Commune defeated
through January 1936
defeat leads to the “two black years” of a
February--Popular Front wins national elections
March--Popular Front elected in France
July--Franco leads military uprising, seizing control of Morocco
February--major offensive against Madrid
May--uprising in Barcelona
June--key city of Bilboa captured by Franco
April--Franco splits Republic in two
February--Britain and France recognize Franco’s government
April--Republicans unconditionally surrender
CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo - National
Confederation of Labour)
main federation of anarcho-syndicalist trade unions, strongest on the Eastern coast, disinterested altogether in reform
FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation)
founded in 1927 as a faction within the CNT to promote a hard Anarchist line
PCE (Partido Comunista de España - Communist Party of
The Stalinist CP was very weak at outbreak of civil war, but
came to dominate popular front government
PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español - Spanish Socialist
A Democratic Socialist party which was split when Largo Caballero announced his support for a ‘Bolshevik’ takeover of power
PSUC (Partit Socialista Unifacat de Catalunya - Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia)
Split from the PSOE in favor of Catalonian independence, formed from the union of several smaller parties but mainly from the USC, or Catalan Socialist Union.
UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores - General Union of Workers)
PSOE’s union, strongest in the industrial North, split between an old guard that preferred gradual change after suffering a terrible defeat in 1917 and an energetic young leadership (Graham, 8).
POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista - Worker’s Party
of Marxist Unification)
Formed by a merger of the Trotskyist Left Opposition with a petty bourgeois Catalan nationalist party
Alpert, Michael. The Republican army in the Spanish civil war, 1936-1939. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Beevor, Antony. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. Hachette UK, 2012.
Drachkovitch, Milorad M. Biographical dictionary of the Comintern. Hoover Press, 1986.
Graham, Helen. The Spanish Republic at War 1936-1939. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Hochschild, Adam. Spain in our hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.
McLaughlin, Paul. Anarchism and authority: A philosophical introduction to classical anarchism. Routledge, 2016.
Payne, Stanley G., and Stanley G. Payne. The Spanish civil war. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Paz, Abel. Durruti in the Spanish revolution. AK Press, 2007.
Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Random House, 2011.
Art: Spanish Civil War poster “Never” https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/collection/bb06157271
Cloud City by Andres Cantu
Else by Harry Koniditsiotis