71 minutes | Jun 25, 2020

8. The Spanish Civil War in Our Hearts

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 a
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