The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939

Paul Preston | Published in
  • The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counter-Revolution
    Burnett Bolloten - Harvester/Wheatsheaf, 1991 - 1074 pp.
  • Socialism and War: The Spanish Socialist Party in Power and Crisis, 1936-1939
    Helen Graham - Cambridge University Press, 1991 - 327pp – 335.

Franco and his fellow Spanish generals rebelled against the legally elected Popular Front government of the Second Republic on July 17th and 18th, 1936, convinced that they were saving Spain from a Moscow-inspired revolution. Given the insignificance of the Spanish Communist Party, this reflected the credulity of army officers who assumed all leftists to be the puppets of Moscow. That view was spread in military barracks by right-wing newspapers and by the reports generated by the Entente Internationale contre la Troisieme Internationale of Geneva which counted several prominent generals, including Franco, among its subscribers. In fact, after briefly uniting into the Popular Front electoral coalition in February 1936, the left was drifting inexorably back towards its eternal debilitating divisions. In addition to hostility between anarchists and Communists and Socialists, the largest party of the left, the Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol or PSOE, was torn by a vicious internecine conflict.

The self-styled 'bolshevising' wing of the PSOE was perplexed by the Communist Party's policy of supporting bourgeois liberals within the Popular Front. Weakened by this and by their own lack of any revolutionary strategy, the 'bolshevisers' were losing ground by July 1936 to the moderate wing of the PSOE. It is one of the great ironies of history that the military rebels provoked a revolution, propelled the Communists to power and opened the way to the arrival of Russian agents in Spain. The rising destroyed the apparatus of the bourgeois state and left a power vacuum which was filled in loyalist Spain by workers organisations. It is an even greater irony that the strongest party of the left, the PSOE, was destroyed by the internal fractionalism which arose from its attempts to cope with the post-rising reality. The Republic was soon forced to seek aid where it could be found and that meant the Soviet Union. Since Russian foreign policy sought not to offend the Western democracies in the hope of co-operation against the Nazi threat, such aid was given in return for reconstruction of the bourgeois state, an enterprise which necessitated the crushing of anarchist revolution and which was supported by the moderate Socialists.

Accordingly, Soviet aid kept the Republic going but at the price of destructive internal conflicts. These political divisions and their fateful impact on the Republican war effort are the subject of two very different books whose seminal importance is difficult to ignore. Helen Graham has produced a startlingly original and sensitive account of the role played by the Socialist Party throughout the war. The eclipse of the Socialist Party between 1936 and 1939 is crucial to our understanding of the outcome of the Spanish Civil War and of the subsequent failure of the left in its struggle against the Franco dictatorship. Dr Graham's book is a massive contribution to the broader history of the Spanish left, which has wider implications about the difficulties being experienced by the European left at the time. It is based on a daunting array of archival sources and the material is deployed in an extraordinarily perceptive manner. Building on a subtle account of pre-war PSOE factionalism, she demonstrates how the party was destroyed by its attempt to contribute to the war effort while dealing with the divisions consequent upon its ambiguous and conflictive relationship with the Communists. It is a book which was written in the shadow of the work of Burnett Bolloten yet emerges with its light undimmed.

The present, posthumously published, and misleadingly titled, work is the definitive version of Burnett Bolloten's monumental history of the role of the Communists within the Republican zone, first published in 1961 as The Grand Camouflage, and substantially revised in 1980. Its central thesis is that the agents of the Comintern and their Spanish dupes imported terror into Spain to destroy the social revolution in the interests of Soviet foreign policy. With overwhelming detail, Bolloten shows how the Communists allied with the bourgeois Republicans and the right-wing of the Socialist party to dismantle the revolutionary organs of proletarian power which were created in the wake of the 1936 military rebellion. Control of the flow of Soviet aid enabled the Communists to rebuild the bourgeois state apparatus, incorporate workers' militias into the regular Popular Army and bring collectivised industry and agriculture under centralised control, the while intimidating their leftist opponents with a machinery of terror which recreated in Spain the atmosphere of the Moscow purges.

This is all true and never more thoroughly demonstrated than by Bolloten. The flaw in his work is that he ignores both the pre-1956 divisions of the Spanish left and the military context in which the Communists helped reconstruct a conventional state and army. As Helen Graham shows, the moderate Socialists and bourgeois liberals who played a prominent role in that process, far from being the dupes of the Communists were their conscious collaborators. Prior to the arrival of Soviet aid, the Republic faced defeat as Franco's brutalised Army of Africa well equipped by the Third Reich pushed aside the volunteer militias. After, indeed because of, the process described by Bolloten, the Republic was able to hold out for another two years to the very considerable benefit of British rearmament.

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