The Socialist 13 July 2006 |
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ON THE 70th anniversary of its outbreak, PETER TAAFFE reviews Battle
for Spain - The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 by Anthony Beevor (Weidenfeld
and Nicolson £25).
Anthony Beevor is a very popular author, shown by the huge sales of
his previous books, Stalingrad and Berlin, because unlike many other
capitalist historians he is largely objective in describing events. This
book is in a similar vein - Beevor confirms much of the analysis made by
genuine Marxism of the Spanish revolution, almost despite himself.
There are occasional lapses when he seeks to generalise, which betray
his class standpoint. One is his description of the Asturian commune of
1934, when the miners, supported by the socialist trade union, the UGT,
and the Largo Caballero wing of the Socialist Party (PSOE) rose in a
revolutionary general strike.
This was brutally suppressed by Franco, amongst others, then a
'republican' general. Beevor maintains that the working class should not
have started this strike "without parliamentary support", which he
claims was "a serious error for it played into the government's hands".
This schoolmasterly 'tut-tutting', at some historical distance, is
ridiculous. What was involved in 1934 was not parliamentary etiquette
but the very fate of the Spanish working class. The Spanish workers had
witnessed Hitler coming to power a year earlier and were determined to
prevent a similar 'peaceful' fascist seizure of power in Spain.
The entry into the government of three representatives from the
right-wing Catholic organisation, CEDA, was the signal for an uprising.
The Asturian commune was a 'dress rehearsal' for the tumultuous events
of 1936, as was the 1905 revolution in Russia for the successful
revolution in 1917. These events cannot be taken in isolation but were
part of the Spanish revolution of 1931-37, the real subject of Beevor's
book rather than just the 'civil war' itself.
Between the election of the Popular Front government in February 1936
and Franco's coup, according to Beevor, "altogether 133 general strikes
and 216 local strikes had been called". This indicates the temper of the
Spanish masses at this stage. But they came up against the opposition
not just of the landlords and the capitalists - who seriously prepared
for a fascist uprising - but also of the Popular Front government.
Beevor naively declares: "The ultimate paradox of the liberal
republic represented by its government was that it did not dare defend
itself from its own army by giving weapons to the workers who had
elected it." This was not a "paradox", but logical from a capitalist
point of view.
Capitalist politicians recognise that, in the defence of all their
property - the factories, workplaces and their personal wealth - they
ultimately need the force of the state machine to suppress the demands
of the working class. This is particularly the case in periods of high
One carpenter quoted by Beevor hit the nail on the head when he
simply states: "The Republican authorities were not prepared to give us
arms because they were more afraid of the working class than they were
of the army."
While the government negotiated with the conspirators, the masses
clamoured for arms. Where they listened to their leaders they were
However, it was the immortal Barcelona proletariat that saved the day
when it marched to confront the fascist officer-led army at their
barracks on 19 July. With their bare hands, a few sporting rifles and
the legs of chairs and tables, they smashed the fascists and within a
few days the whole of Catalonia was controlled by the working class.
Four-fifths of Spain was effectively controlled by the workers and
peasants but the working class was blocked by the leaders of the mass
parties, the Socialist and Communist parties.
The anarchists, who were very strong in Spain (particularly in
Barcelona and Catalonia) , also had a completely false analysis of the
role of the capitalist state. Their denunciation of 'the state' in
general meant they were unable to distinguish between a workers' state
and a capitalist one.
This led them into collaboration with the capitalist parties in
choking the revolution. They entered the government in Catalonia, where
they played a crucial role in derailing the revolution. Beevor also
The Stalinists, on the other hand - particularly in the PCE (Spanish
Communist Party - initially smaller than the forces of Trotskyism),
played the most pernicious and crucial role in derailing what was a more
favourable opportunity for a successful revolution than had existed even
in Russia in October 1917 or in Germany in the run-up to Hitler's
seizure of power.
The events in Spain at this time were organically connected to the
Stalinist bureaucratic counter-revolution unfolding in Russia. Beevor
and Russian Marxist historians have unearthed material (from archives
made available since the collapse of Stalinism) on the effects of the
Spanish revolution on the internal position of Stalinist Russia and a
layer of the bureaucracy.
Antonov-Ovseyenko, the Stalinist ambassador to Spain, was affected
profoundly by the revolutionary turn of events. This was a man who in
1917 led the seizure of the Winter Palace and became a supporter of
Trotsky, only to capitulate to Stalin later.
He went to Spain as a representative of the Stalinist regime but
nevertheless was touched by the events. He sent back reports to Russia
urging Stalin to support the revolutionary upheavals, even those of the
anarchists in Catalonia in 1936. This was to earn him a recall and
subsequent execution. Many other Russians who were in Spain and who
loyally served the Stalinist apparatus suffered a similar fate when they
In fact, the purge trials in the USSR were, as Trotsky pointed out, a
"one-sided civil war" to prevent the revolutionary contagion unleashed
by the Spanish revolution affecting Russia and leading to the overthrow
of the Stalinist bureaucracy.
The May events of 1937 in particular marked a high point in the
Spanish revolution. A unique situation existed in the areas controlled
by the Republicans following Franco's coup. To a man and woman, the
capitalists and landlords had fled to the side of the nationalists under
Franco. What remained in Republican areas was the 'shadow' of the
capitalists - remnants of the shattered capitalist state machine.
However, an alliance of right-wing Republicans and the Stalinists
allowed this shadow to take on substance. In all revolutions we see
situations when the masses, having thought they had dealt a death blow
to capitalism, then realise that their gains are gradually being taken
from their hands and come out in a spontaneous attempt to complete the
revolution. This happened in July 1917 in the Russian revolution and
also in January 1919 in Germany.
The Stalinists' argument was, in effect, 'first victory over
Franco-fascists, then revolution'. This infamous theory of 'stages' was
fatal in the Spanish Revolution. Trotsky pointed out that the masses
must be aware that they are fighting for their own social liberation in
order to be victorious in the military struggle. One of the weaknesses
of Beevor's book is that he overemphasises the military aspects without
seeing that these are subordinate to the social factors, particularly
the consciousness of the workers and peasants.
In Barcelona in May 1937, when the government tried to take over the
telephone exchange (Telefonica), workers poured into the anarchist
FAI-CNT and POUM (Workers' Party of Marxist Unity) headquarters, began
to arm themselves and build barricades. Very quickly, the whole of
Barcelona was in their hands. Beevor writes: "The anarchists had an
overwhelming numerical majority, holding almost 90% of Barcelona and its
suburbs, as well as the heavy guns of Montjuich."
But he then adds: "These overwhelming advantages were not used
because the CNT-FAI knew that further fighting would lead to a full
civil war within the civil war, in which they would be cast as traitors,
even if the nationalists were unable to take advantage of the
Yet a "civil war within the civil war" was already taking place
through the onslaught of the counter-revolution against the gains of the
working class. Such processes unfold in all revolutions, which see
shifts to the left leading to attempts at counter-revolution and to a
further movement forward of the revolution.
This was a classic case where a small but determined revolutionary
party like the POUM could have won over the masses. But, instead of
openly campaigning for a militant, conscious policy of resistance and
for the completion of the revolution, the POUM leaders went for
diplomacy behind the scenes with the CNT leaders. This gave the
initiative to the counter-revolution, which denounced the POUM and the
anarchist organisation, Friends of Durruti, as 'agents provocateurs'.
Cheered on and organised by the Stalinists, the counter-revolution
crushed the movement in Barcelona and effectively liquidated the Spanish
revolution. All the horrors of Stalinist barbarity were now unleashed in
the secret prisons, the use of torture, the assassination of the POUM
leaders Nin and Andrade, and the similar deaths of anarchists and other
workers which Beevor describes.
Although Beevor takes another 150 pages describing the events after
May 1937, the Barcelona events represented the high point of the
revolution. The 'civil war' then took on a purely military character.
Accordingly, the masses became increasingly indifferent to its outcome.
In fact, the civil war ended with dictatorships in both parts of
Spain, as Colonel Casado, in conjunction with Miaja, a so-called
'Republican' general, seized power from the 'democratic' Republicans.
They then opened up peace negotiations with Franco leading to the
collapse of Republican areas. The terrible repression and suffering of
the masses under the heel of Franco-fascism, as well as the republican
exiles in France and elsewhere, is described in harrowing detail.
Beevor's book does not deal with 'dead' history. Although Spanish
society today seems far removed from the 1930s, the colossal class
conflicts which led to the civil war can and will recur. Spain today
faces huge economic problems which the bosses will seek to place on the
backs of the working class, and the latter will resist as did their
forebears in 1936. The struggle may take on a different form but if the
working class does not absorb the lessons of these events similar
tragedies can take place again.
This book is well worth reading for an overall picture of the
momentous events in Spain. It will be even more appreciated, its
weaknesses better understood, if those who tackle this book would also
read Trotsky's marvellous writings on Spain, as well as the great
Marxist-Trotskyist analysis provided by Felix Morrow in his Revolution
and Counter-Revolution in Spain, and the Militant pamphlet, The Spanish
All the above-mentioned books are available from Socialist Books
The Spanish Revolution 1931-37 (a Militant pamphlet) £1.50 including
5 copies £5.50, 10 copies £10.00 (including p&p).
Cheques payable to Socialist Books. PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD.
Debit/credit card payments 020 8988 8789.
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