The Magazine

Spanish Upheaval

Republicans, nationalists, and the crucible of modern Spain

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The nationalist coup failed, however, to subdue the main Spanish cities: Madrid, the capital; Barcelona, the main industrial center; and others. According to Payne, without the swift capture of Madrid, the nationalists lost the initiative and condemned Spain to a war of attrition. He deems the Battle of Madrid “the first turning point” in that war; indeed, Madrid became a global publicity symbol for the Republican cause. The city was defended with the help of Russian arms and officers: Stalin chose to back the Republic, but Moscow’s obvious desire to impose Communist dictation on the Spanish left made it the equivalent of the interfering fascist powers rather than a firm ally of the Republic.

In Barcelona, where the anarcho-syndicalist union movement was a leading force, a distinct outcome emerged with the defeat of the military plot. The social demands of the left took precedence over the preservation of the Republican system. The Catalonian nationalist president Lluís Companys and his regional government submitted to a system of dual rule alongside the labor revolutionaries. In Payne’s words, the anarchists “accepted a limited semi-pluralism,” in contrast to Communist totalitarianism. Following the Barcelona model, “multiparty committees and councils of revolutionary power .  .  . sprang up in towns, provinces, and sometimes entire regions throughout the Republican zone.”

Payne judges that the social revolution in leftist-controlled territory was “proportionately the most extensive, and also the most nearly spontaneous, worker revolution in a European country. It was carried out by genuine worker organizations on the local level .  .  . from the bottom up, rather than being organized from the top down by a political party of middle-class intellectuals and activists”—like the Bolsheviks in Russia. Payne appears to agree with Andreu Nin, leader of the anti-Stalinist Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) and in whose militia George Orwell served. Nin called events in Spain “a more profound proletarian revolution than the Russian Revolution,” and he had a certain expertise in the subject: Nin had been a functionary of the Communist International in Moscow from 1921 to 1930 before fleeing Russia as a Trotskyist. 

Stalin’s Russia frowned on Spanish revolutionary ambitions. With the Communists weak at the outbreak of the war, but represented in the People’s Front, Stalin faced a “dilemma [he] never fully resolved,” according to Payne.

For nearly two decades, the Soviet Union had preached revolution and civil war. Suddenly—and paradoxically, against Soviet wishes—civil war and violent revolution had broken out in Spain, but it was an anarchist and Socialist revolution.

Challenged by the limited influence of the Spanish Communists, Moscow turned to infiltration of existing Republican institutions. The Russian foreign minister warned Stalin that support for Spanish radicalism might prevent Russia from securing allies in the West. For these and other reasons, Soviet aid to the Spanish Republic diminished considerably as the war continued, leading Republican leaders to accuse Stalin of abandoning them. Payne argues that, at the beginning, Russian assistance to the Spanish left far exceeded what Franco received from Hitler and Mussolini, who responded by escalating their involvement.

Soviet deceit in Spain led to a “second counter-revolution” by Communists against their leftist rivals. Soviet agents murdered the POUM leader Nin. Meanwhile, as months went by, General Franco and his colleagues carried out a patient strategy of political consolidation within their movement and a successful campaign to break Catalonia (as the center of resistance) away from the rest of Republican-held territory. In April 1939, 75 years ago, the Spanish Republic capitulated.

In this rich panorama of ideology and politics, Stanley Payne has included an argument that deserves emphasis. The anti-Stalinist POUM and, in the 1960s, the Spanish Communist party’s “Eurocommunist” leadership came to agree that, with Soviet intervention on the anti-Franco side, the Republic embodied the first example of a “people’s democracy,” the political model imposed by Stalin in Eastern Europe after World War II. But as Payne affirms, “The [Spanish] Republic was a sovereign state, not a satellite of the Soviet Union, and there were definite limits to Communist hegemony.” This invaluable contribution reminds us that the Spanish revolution and civil war of 1936-39 remain relevant and worthy of study. 


Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor.