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The Spanish Republic and the civil war 1931-1939 Essay

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Tragically in 1939, after three years of bitter civil war and with the loss of around 750,000 Spanish lives, Spain fell to the rule of a Fascist dictatorship that was to last for almost four decades. The Spanish tragedy has been told and analysed by countless historians, and of these works Gabriel Jackson’s The Spanish Republic and the Civil War 1931-1939 is widely referred to as the definitive liberal history of the Spanish Republic. Jackson begins with an outline of the nineteenth century monarchical and political upheavals that preceded the birth of the Spanish republic in 1931.

From there, we are given a detailed account of events leading to Franco’s final victory in 1939 and finally a synopsis which attempts to address some of the criticisms that have been levelled at Jackson’s depiction. One such criticism is that Jackson leaves a crucial part of the story untold, namely that of the struggle of workers and peasants against not just the nationalist forces, but too against the conditions of capitalism and semi-feudalism.

One of Jackson’s most ardent critics has been Noam Chomsky, who through his ‘Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship’ has provided an excellent theoretical framework to enable a critical reading of Jackson, primarily in his depiction of events from 1936-1937. In this work Chomsky points to the subordination of liberal intelligencia, universities in particular, to the ‘military- industrial complex’, in this case the American State and big business. In other words, writers of ostensibly ‘objective’ historical works become compromised by their social, economic and political ties to the prevailing ideology, leading them to interpret events with the notion in mind of the inevitability and desirability of bourgeois democracy. Alongside this, according to Zbigniew Brzezinski,

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“…the largely humanist-oriented, occasionally ideologically-minded intellectual-dissenter, who sees his role largely in terms of proffering social critiques, is rapidly being displaced either by experts and specialists, who become involved in special governmental undertakings, or by the generalists-integrators, who become in effect house-ideologies for those in power, providing overall intellectual integration for disparate actions.”1

The search for objective ‘truth’ then is subordinated in these instances to the subjectivity of the author/investigator and in the final instance we are given a partial and distorted view of historical events, as is the case with Jackson’s work. The motivations and actions of those directly involved are written out of the story, and instead the logic of liberal scholarship gives precedence to the political leadership of the ‘natural parties’ of government. As Chomsky points out, Jackson makes it abundantly clear that he is, “in favour of liberal democracy, as represented by figures such as Azana, Casares Quiroga, Martinez Barrio, and other “responsible national leaders.” and, “makes little attempt to disguise his antipathy towards the forces of popular revolution in Spain, or their goals.” 2

Therefore, mass action is generally regarded as of secondary importance to the manoeuvrings of the Popular Front government, even when in practice it was often powerless. Further, when these masses threaten the ‘natural order’ of capitalist production, by acts of collectivisation, expropriation, land seizure and abolition of money, they are described as, ‘na�ve’, ‘counterproductive’, ‘ill educated’, ‘fundamentally conservative’ and ‘misled’. Only when these masses follow the lead and policies of the natural elite does Jackson recognise and applaud mass contribution, and Jackson fails to recognise the crucial nature of the revolutionary/counterrevolutionary period from the summer of 1936 to 1937 in which,

“the revolution was largely spontaneous with mass participation of anarchist and socialist industrial and agricultural workers; the counterrevolution was under communist direction…”3

To partly summarise Chomsky’s criticisms, two examples of Jackson’s ‘subjective’ analysis of this period are, the role of the Communist Party in Spain and collectivisation in Catalonia.

Under a Moscow directive, the PCE was founded in Spain with only 800 members in 1930. This number grew to around 20,000 in 1934 while the PCE had dropped its ‘social fascist’ stance regarding other left groupings, to embrace all parties of the left under the Popular Front umbrella.

“…Stalin had concluded that international fascism…posed a threat after all…His answer was the adoption during 1934/35 of a ‘Popular Front’ policy for resisting fascism.”4 This membership grew to over 250,000 during the first eight months of the war, 40% of this number being made up the petit bourgeoisie. The PCE, again under orders from Moscow, embraced bourgeois democracy, their only task to defend the Republic, and revolutionary action by the masses was not on Stalin’s agenda.

“In responding to a plea from help from Spain’s Popular Front government, Stalin was perusing what he perceived to be in the foreign policy interest of the Soviet Union…What Soviet aid…began to reach Spain in October 1936, was emphatically not intended to advance the cause of social revolution in Republican Spain.”5

Jackson however claims,

“The interrupted movement toward world revolution, as well as the security of the Soviet Union, might well be advanced by a Republican victory in Spain.”6

Chomsky rightly regards Jackson’s view of The Soviet Union as a nation hungry to embrace world revolution as ‘entirely mistaken’, and indeed the Soviet Union of the 1930s had come a long way from the days of the ‘storming of the Winter Palace in the November Revolution of 1917.’

“Russia is a totalitarian regime…the frame of mind its leaders …is cynical and opportunist. To expect such men to lead a social revolution in Spain, where the wildest idealism is combined with great independence of character, was out of the question.”7

Political purges and show trials in the Soviet Union in 1934-36 had seen potential political opposition to Stalin brutally removed, many being accused, as was Leon Trotsky, of having been in league with Hitler. Russia was then a country “with a revolutionary past, not a revolutionary present.”8

Stalin’s main aim in 1936 was to ward off any threat from Hitler’s Germany, by allying himself with Britain and France. Accordingly, a proletarian revolution in Spain could not be allowed to succeed, bringing as it would a threat of instability to ruling classes the world over, and a shift in the balance of European power. Communist policy as regards Spain then was one of subordinating “their [PCE] national policies to the USSR’s supposed international interests.”9 In effect this meant the defence of all legitimate middle-class authority at the expense the grass root militancy that could have helped avert the tragic outcome to Spain’s civil war. As one communist student of the time, critical of such policy noted,

“But a more revolutionary course will only frighten the democracies,’ people said. What nonsense! The capitalist democracies were frightened enough already by what was happening in Spain. ‘Stalin won’t agree,’ said others. But was that the case? Would Stalin not have had to do what he did anyway – and a lot more, perhaps – if we had pursued a more revolutionary course? Could he afford to be seen betraying a proletarian revolution?”10

The next bone of contention, is the account Jackson gives of collectivisation. In the initial process of collectivisation, Jackson berates unions in Valencia and Barcelona for abusing “their sudden authority to place the sign incautado on all manner of buildings and vehicles.”11 However, as Chomsky notes, this wording belies Jackson’s ignorance towards the ‘reality of the revolutionary situation.’ While Jackson recognises the occurrence of “..the most profound social revolution since the fifteenth century..”12, it seems that he is not inclined to recognise the actions that are an integral part of such a ‘profound social revolution.’

Later, Jackson claims that in 1936, “… the revolutionary tide began to ebb in Catalonia…accumulating food and supply problems, and the experience of administering villages, frontier posts, and public utilities, had rapidly shown the anarchists the unexpected complexity of modern society.”13 Chomsky on the other hand points to the attack led by the Communist Party to destroy the gains made by workers and peasants without the blessing of any ‘legitimate’ government force. ‘First win the war then make the revolution’, was the slogan that epitomised the drive to subordinate the revolutionary aspirations of the masses to the will of the legitimate powers.

“Collectivisation brought order to the chaotic situation… All the parties and organisations solemnly agreed to respect the letter and the spirit of the new law; ‘but within three months the Republican parties were systematically obstructing it; and soon afterwards the communists were sabotaging it’..”14 and

“International capitalism was determined to do everything in its power to force the failure of the collectivised Catalan economy.”15

Chomsky too challenges Jackson’s attitude towards and analysis of war production and distribution in collectivised areas. For example,

“In Catalonia, the CNT factory committees dragged their heels on war production, claiming that the government deprived them of raw materials and was favouring the bourgeoisie,”16

Firstly this is in stark contrast to Jackson’s charitable attitude towards production methods in fascist controlled areas, and his fairly uncritical depiction of later communist methods which involved substantially restoring a free market in essential without any apparent benefits to the war effort. Secondly, as Chomsky notes, Jackson does not substantiate his statement with fact. These two criticisms perhaps point to another instance where Jackson noticeably favours traditional capitalist production against that of the collective. In any case, evidence points to the fact that while conditions were favourable, with access to raw materials for example, collective production rivalled that elsewhere in Spain.

“The war industry in Catalonia had produced ten times more than the rest of Spanish industry put together and ….this output could have been quadrupled as from beginning of September if Catalonia had had access to the necessary raw materials that were unobtainable in Spanish territory.”17 Further, it is evident that the central government denied much needed financial assistance because of its lack of sympathy with, rather hostility towards collectivisation. “Only in exchange for government control would they give financial assistance.”18

Whatever accusations may be levelled at the running of the collectives, at least two points must be remembered. Firstly, in many instances, collectivisation came as the result of a huge surge from below,

“The revolution was like a dog shaking itself when it comes out of the water – the Spanish people shaking itself free of 400 years’ injustice. There was nothing we militants could do but go ahead or shoot ourselves.”19

Secondly, against overwhelming odds, the “Catalan working class kept collectivised production going for thirty months of war.”20

In conclusion, this paper has only managed to briefly capture Chomsky’s detailed criticism of Jackson, and to follow on from Chomsky is no easy task given his coherent, thoroughly researched critique. Chomsky highlights Jackson’s apparent lack of understanding of the true nature of revolutionary struggle, which leads him to mistakenly identify the 1930s Soviet Union as a revolutionary force and to disparage the actions of mass movements lacking conventional political leadership.

The first mistaken belief is, as Chomsky points out, entirely in keeping with the “American Cold War mythology that has invented an “international Communist conspiracy” directed from Moscow … to justify its own interventionist policies.”21 The two beliefs together lead him to significantly underplay the destructive role played by Communist policy in Spain, which, while not wholly to blame for the Fascist victory, significantly dented the workers’ will to fight. Many theorists have argued that only a successful revolution could have ultimately beaten the fascists, and that an early arming of workers could have averted three years of carnage. However, “We weren’t being armed because the Republican authorities were more frightened of the working class than off the military.” (Francisco Cabrera, Communist Youth, Seville)

Communist insistence on an exclusively Popular Front, petty bourgeois programme was disastrous, which ultimately undermined the fight against Fascism. The loss of the Civil War in Spain to the fascists was more than just a military defeat, as in the words of Ronald Fraser,

“For the objective was not only to castigate the defeated but to crush for all time working class militancy and the threat of socialist revolution, so that Spanish capitalism could prosper.”

 

Quotes

1 Chomsky, N, Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, p30

2 Chomsky, p75

3 Chomsky, p81

4 Blinkhorn, Democracy and Civil War in Spain, p36

5 Blinkhorn, p36

6 Jackson, The Spanish Republic and the Civil War 1931-1939, p259

7 Chomsky, p84

8 Chomsky, p85

9 Fraser, Blood of Spain, p328

10 Fraser, p329

11 Jackson, p279

12 Jackson, p277

13 Jackson, p314

14 Fraser, p215

15 Fraser, p216

16 Jackson, p365

17 Chomsky, p89

18 Chomsky, p90

19 Fraser, p229

20 Fraser, p234

21 Chomsky, p86

Bibliography

Jackson, G, 1965, The Spanish Republic and the Civil War 1931-1939, Princeton University Press

Fraser, R, 1979, Blood of Spain, Penguin

Blinkhorn, M, Democracy and Civil War in Spain

Chomsky, N, Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship

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