In any serious struggles, particularly in the case of wars, the victors invariably have the means to ensure that their version of what took place is the one that dominates the historical record – at least for a considerable time. This is no less true of the Spanish Civil War than any other such comparable event. The victory for Franco and his military, monarchist, clerical and bourgeois allies ensured that for decades the numerous episodes of this battle between contending forces in 20th century Spain, were distorted in favour of flattering the victors. The brutality of Franco’s Nationalist forces was both played down or justified where it could not be absolutely covered up. In contrast the crimes committed by the Republican forces (and there were many) were deliberately exaggerated and frequently fabricated.
The voluminous and partisan right-wing narratives of this struggle continued to be produced until the death of Franco and changed circumstances in Spain allowed a more balanced and nuanced assessment of the upheavals of 1931 to 1936. This alternative perspective has also become considerable and further atrocities, particularly those perpetrated by Franco’s Nationalist side, continue to be uncovered and recorded well into the 21st century. However, most of this additional research and scholarship, welcome as it is, tends to focus on the detail of the many episodes and events within Spain, without sufficient reference to the serious socio-economic context previously created by a profound systemic crisis within the capitalist mode of production.
Of course, it is important to consider the sectarian motives and atrocities committed by the armed brigades and military commanders on all sides. And this article (together with the second; Part – 2) will do so. But it is also important to understand the political upheaval of the Spanish Civil War within the economic context of the 20th century structural crisis of the capitalist mode of production. One consequence of the previously noted national emphasis, (an emphasis much favoured by the pro-capitalists) is that the wider revolutionary implications and problems which this international economic crisis revealed, are also generally missing in most of the literature. The popular interpretation of this struggle as simply being between Fascism and Democracy, is conveniently misleading. This first part of this article will attempt to introduce and briefly explain this missing perspective before continuing to take into account some of the specifics which took place within Spain.
Capitalist crisis and the rise of Fascism.
The development of a civil-war struggle within Spain was part of a much wider economically driven political phenomena which to a greater of lesser extent – arose in all the advanced capitalist countries of the world during that period. Practically every country in the capitalist world witnessed huge class-struggle issues surface as the economic and political crisis deepened during the 1020’s and 30’s. Most of the countries experiencing this crisis also saw the rise of totalitarian movements (and/or political parties), even if they did not always achieve political power, as they did in the European countries of Spain, Italy and Germany. These political symptoms were reactions to the fundamental economic nature of the crisis.
When the capitalist mode of production entered its early 20th century stage of relative overproduction and consequent downturn, the lives of millions of working people reached a critically low ebb. This crisis embraced the whole of Europe and North America. Unemployment and poverty escalated exponentially in all these centres of International capitalism. A radicalisation of working class consciousness and activity proliferated, to a greater of lesser extent, in all the countries effected. This in turn gave rise to a questioning of the capitalist system along with movements aimed at either reform or revolution. However, it wasn’t only the working and oppressed classes who were radicalised by these traumatic events. The middle-classes, (bourgeois and petite bourgeois) were also radicalised but in directions aimed at protecting the capitalist mode of production, rather than in superseding it.
The later stages of the Spanish civil war, as with the Second World War, both of which were subsequently celebrated as a struggle against Fascism, began as a struggle by workers against the capitalist mode of production. Practically everywhere in Europe and North America, during the crisis period of 1914 to the 1930’s, working people began to mobilise and organise against the capitalist system. Demonstrations, Petitions, strikes and General Strikes proliferated and galvanised workers into questioning (and acting against) the interests of capital. Revolution was discussed openly as being a necessary method of resolving the problems faced by the employed and unemployed working classes. Indeed, revolution although attempted elsewhere came closest to being realised in Russia, only in this case to be quickly hi-jacked by the sectarian Bolshevik elite.
It became increasingly obvious to sections of the ruling elite that the anti-capitalist focus and aspirations arising among the working classes, needed dampening, extinguishing or diverting. In fact the emergence of Fascism among sections of the ruling elite and middle-classes, created a convenient pretext for all three outcomes. It was a successful diversion in which the talents, energies and lives of millions of working people were expended in defending one international section of the capitalist elite (the Allied forces) against a rival international section (the Axis forces). It was the second 20th century war in which the working classes of each country were driven or led into exterminating the working people of another country.
During this period, the class war against capital was everywhere (from the east to the west) transformed into a military war between the liberal-democratic minded capitalist elites and totalitarian-minded ones. The ensuing global war and the example of Bolshevism completed the dampening down and extinguishing of revolutionary aspirations and energies among the working classes. The added importance of the Spanish Civil War in the context of this extended international economic crisis, and its transformation into a global Armageddon, was that it became something of a dress rehearsal for those political and military actors who later unleashed the Second World War. So to return to the situation in Spain.
[A fuller discussion of this 1920’s and 1930’s economic and social crisis along with the development of Fascism is contained in the following articles; ‘Capitalism and Fascism’; ‘1914 – 1918 Capitalisms 1st World War’; and 1938 – 1945, Capitalisms 2nd World War.’ All on this site!]
A brief historical background.
For many centuries Spain was a very wealthy feudal country. In fact it was for a time the world’s most dominant super power with a vast empire stretching across North and South America and parts of North Africa. During this period, most of its surplus wealth was created by extracting it from other economic communities across the world in the form of precious metals, minerals and produce which circulated internally and externally in Europe. The extent of this Spanish Empire funded the development of a diverse and powerful elite who invariably consumed without producing and a landowning section not entirely dependent upon peasant agriculture and efficient land use. This elite (along with the wealth) was predominantly spread among the aristocracy, the Catholic clergy and the military. This was a combination which while it remained united made it an immensely powerful social and political force.
However, the gradual loss of this external empire due to the competitive rivalry of rising capitalist and colonialist countries, such as France, Holland and Britain, weakened the international foundations of this Hispanic socio-economic elite. Initially this loss also created some internal divisions within the Spanish ruling classes, but without significantly eliminating their social and political domination. Despite these divergent interests what prompted substantial sections of them to eventually come together were challenges emanating from the accumulated rise within Spain of a bourgeoisie, a petite bourgeoisie, a proletariat and an increasingly militant peasantry. The ordinary citizens who staffed these new economic categories, increasingly spawned by capitalism, began to demand the type of reforms and resources which in effect would curtail some, if not all, of these feudal-style privileges.
It is important to understand that not all these developing bourgeois economic categories wanted the same thing. In general the relatively weak bourgeoisie in Spain wanted conditions which allowed a fuller development of industrial and commercial capital, the petite bourgeoisie wanted freedom of expression and access to careers and career progression, whilst workers and peasants wanted better pay, better conditions and shorter hours. The socialist revolutionaries among the workers (those influenced by the Soviet experiment in Russia and others) wanted to overthrow the clergy, the military, the monarchy/landed aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and petite bourgeois privileges and form a worker’s state. The Anarchists, and those affiliated to them, of which there were hundreds of thousands in Spain, wanted some of the above plus a stateless society of self-organising communes.
This diversity of interests was already producing a mixed cocktail of views and preferences, to which sectarianism eventually added its fatal dose of poison. Under such emerging economic conditions, an astute social and political understanding would have recognised that in order to succeed in any struggle, (reformist or otherwise) tactics would be need to be adopted which played upon divisions within the Spanish elite. However, such an understanding was missing among most if not all of the forces actively engaged in challenging the then existing state of Spanish affairs. As already noted, the left in particular were divided into competing political groups each of which sought to implement its own agenda post-haste and treated other left groups as obstacles to be overcome.
The (Stalinist) Spanish Communist Party agenda in particular, was being directed from Moscow, and consequently viewed left socialists, Trotskyists and Anarchists as enemies rather than possible allies. The Anarchists saw anyone who supported any form of state as reactionaries holding back the communal stage of the revolution. Whilst, many trade unionists and the POUM considered the Stalinists and Anarchists as part of the obstacle to unity rather than part of the solution. In other words, the toxin of left political sectarianism was ready to flow through the body politic of working class Spain. It just needed the right conditions to allow it to be injected. These were provided by the results of a particular election which triggered the civil war. This created the conditions which then allowed this poison to infect the subsequent struggle.
An election which triggered the civil war.
An election in 1931 saw the return of a petite-bourgeois government which viewed itself as a republican solution to the many problems faced by the majority of the Spanish people. With a limited reform programme this government and subsequent ones in 1934 and 1936, served to raise the hopes and expectations of the middle-classes and the oppressed but at the same time raised the fears of the existing clerical, military and land owning elite. The new governments passed numerous basic reforms benefiting the professional middle-classes, the working and peasant classes. These reforms were not the prelude to a revolution, they merely intended to lead Spain belatedly into the 20th century bourgeois world. Nevertheless, this modernising intent was more than the previous elite were prepared to accept. They were so incensed that the military wing of the ruling elite ignored the democratic election results and began to consider plans for a military rebellion.
The petite-bourgeois leadership newly in government, were initially (and naively) confident in their democratic right to govern, a right ostensibly guaranteed by the election results. They viewed the subsequent right-wing military rebellion as illegal under the constitution, and of course it was. However, as all history indicates, elites do not abide by constitutional rules – even the ones they create themselves. If they feel sufficiently threatened and strong enough to resist changes they do not endorse, they do so. This was a lesson the new petite-bourgeois government and their supporters had failed to learn. Reality, as it unfolded during the civil war, was about to teach it to them – big time! It did so the hard way through loss of life, limb, careers, wealth, partners, children and even a decent and identifiable burial place after their eventual execution. Before one or other of this macabre list of punishments befell government officials, it was to fall upon millions of ordinary working people. For some workers who were so punished their crime was to do nothing other than vote for the new government.
For those workers and peasants who actually answered the new and later governments call to fight against the military uprising instigated by Franco and a hard core of right wing military generals, torture, rape and bodily dismemberment can be added to the above grossly inhumane list. And those who answered the call to oppose the military rebellion were many. Originating for the most part after the 1931 elections, numerous citizen militia groups were formed, often affiliated or attached to a political party or trade union and armed themselves as best they could.
Their initial purpose was to either resist or prevent any local or regional military rebellion from spreading to or becoming established in their own particular area. As was to be expected, such grass roots activity created a considerable diversity of aims, objectives and methods of operation. Some of the groups were cautious and moderate, whilst others were aggressive and extremist. However, as already mentioned, far too many, particularly the latter, were also rabidly sectarian. The divisive and destructive effects of this sectarian degeneration within the civil war struggle will be considered in more detail in Part 2.
Roy Ratcliffe (January 2016)