By Andy Durgan
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 329

The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain

This article is over 13 years, 10 months old
Pierre Broué and Emile Témime, Haymarket, £30
Issue 329

The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain remains one of the most cogent histories of events in Spain between 1936 and 1939.

In the first part of the book the great Marxist historian Pierre Broué deals with the social revolution and political evolution of the Republican zone. At the time the book was originally published in French in 1961 most histories barely mentioned the social revolution that swept half of Spain in 1936.

Instead the Communist version of the war as a struggle “between democracy and fascism” was widely accepted. In the late 1960s, with the rebirth of the revolutionary left, there was renewed interest in the Spanish Revolution.

In recent years, however, there have been a spate of studies that once more said that there was no alternative to the Popular Front strategy of liquidating the revolution in order to win middle class support both home and abroad. The virtue of Broué and Témime’s book is that it continues to serve as a succinct riposte to the Popular Frontists, despite the massive amount of material published over the last 50 years.

After outlining the revolutionary process itself – the collectivisation of industry and agriculture, the creation of workers’ militias and the terror launched against the Republic’s enemies – Broué analyses the shortcoming of the workers’ movement.

As he puts it, “the great weakness of the Spanish workers’ revolutionary gains was, even more than their improvised character, their incompleteness”. The multitude of committees that were thrown up as a response to the military uprising could have been the basis of a new power but the anarcho-syndicalists rejected such an alternative and, faced with the need to centralise the war effort, ended up collaborating with the Republican state.

Moreover, collectivisation did not inevitably lead to socialism or libertarian communism but often to what the revolutionary socialist POUM termed “trade union capitalism” whereby enterprises were effectively the “property” of the union or workers’ committee.

The fighting in Barcelona in May 1937 marked the end of the revolution and demonstrated more than ever the absence of revolutionary leadership. But rather than just blaming this on the POUM, as most Trotskyists have, Broué presents a more nuanced view of this party’s failings – something he would take further in later writings.

Historians sympathetic to the Popular Front usually lump together all those who are critical of the Republican government with right wing anti-communists, thus avoiding a serious debate with historians sympathetic to the revolutionary process. Broué’s nuanced view of the Communists cuts across the liberal historians’ crude caricature.

While the Communist Party played a counterrevolutionary role and attracted sections of the petty bourgeoisie to its ranks, many party members, apart from being committed anti-fascists, saw the Popular Front as little more than an interlude on the road to socialism.

The Popular Front policy led the Republican government to pursue a military strategy that was subordinated to winning the support of the Western democracies. Thus in order not to alarm the imperial powers, the navy, most of it in loyalist hands thanks to the swift action of the sailors, was initially removed from the Mediterranean altogether. Likewise, Morocco was not granted independence – something that would have undermined both Franco’s army and his rearguard – so as not to upset colonial interests in Northern Africa.

In contrast Broué’s splendid chapter on the siege of Madrid in November 1936 leaves little doubt as to how mass mobilisation was the key to the successful defence of the capital. The Republic would never employ such a military strategy again, waging instead a war along orthodox lines that could never win, given Franco’s far greater resources.

Historians who sympathise with the revolution are accused of concentrating just on events in the Republican zone between 1936 and 1937 and of ignoring the broader context. In the second part of this book Emile Témime provides this context, outlining the central role of foreign intervention, the course of the war and the nature of the incipient fascist regime.

Unlike Broué, Témime, who sympathises with the social democratic left, draws few lessons from his otherwise lucid account. However, it is hard to escape from the conclusion that Stalin’s intervention in Spain contributed significantly to the Republic’s defeat, despite the initial arrival of aid having shored up Madrid’s defences in November 1936. Most importantly, it is clear that the Popular Front government was never going to receive aid from the Western democracies, despite its whole political and military strategy being underpinned by this aim. With Franco’s military superiority guaranteed by the uninterrupted supply of men and arms from the fascist powers, only a revolutionary war might have avoided what became an inevitable defeat.

Broué and Témime’s book remains a classic text, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand one of the great revolutions of the 20th century.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance