March 28, 2012


Homage to the Spanish: a review of The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston (HUGH THOMAS, April 2012, Standpoint)

I have a number of observations. I am not sure that Professor Preston has quite entered into the minds of the Right in Spain,  who from 1934 onwards felt threatened by a left-wing revolution on a Russian model. Even the British ambassador in Moscow, Lord Chilston, thought the civil war in Spain "likely to end in the establishment of a Communist regime". That had been tried out up to a point in 1934 when the Left recklessly refused to accept their defeat in the national elections of that year and embarked on a destructive rebellion causing among other things the ruin of the University of Oviedo. The Labour spokesman for foreign policy, Hugh Dalton, thought that the rebellion of 1934 removed the justification for anyone feeling outraged by the Right's rising of 1936. 
It will be argued that there was really no danger in Spain of a Soviet-style revolution. But the once staid secretary general of the socialist trade union Large Caballero promised such a thing in early 1936 and approved the merger of his own socialist youth movement with the Communists. How were people to know that he was being rhetorical?

In Spain there was also a cult of violence in the anarchist movement which had captured the imaginations of landless labourers in Andalusia and industrial workers in Catalonia. That movement was brilliantly analysed by Gerald Brenan in his admirable book, The Spanish Labyrinth. The anarchists talked of "the propaganda of the deed" and many genuinely believed that paradise would be on its way  when "the last king was strangled with the guts of the last priest". The world could be remade "with a pistol and an encylopaedia". Half the working class of Spain in, say, 1920 believed in this idea. The consequent murders in Catalonia in particular were all the same atrocious and unpardonable. 

A second national eccentricity was the anarchists' rejection of everything to do with the state, an evil institution with which one should have nothing to do, certainly nothing like casting a vote. This meant that the Restoration  parliamentary system of 1875-1923 and the Republic of 1931-36 would have to do without any participation by half the labour force. The anarchists of the FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica) thought, as Professor Preston reminds us, that "the Republic, like the monarchy, was just an instrument of the bourgeoisie". The FAI wanted an insurrecction against the Republic by "revolutionary gymnastics" and the latter's replacement by libertarian Communism. That meant the abolition of the state and of private property, with communes established in the cities and villages.

The larger and slightly less doctrinaire CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo)was also anarchist in its outlook. It expected the Republic to change nothing and so also aspired in 1931 to "propagate its revolutionary objectives". The political system was thus flawed from the start. There was no anarchist vote in 1931, 1933 and 1936 though, eventually, once the war had begun the anarchists provided four ministers to the socialist government of Largo Caballero.

The anarchists' negative conduct, combined with their violence, goes a long way to explain why the civil war occurred.

Rare is the instance where a country was not well served by its fascist interlude, which, after all, merely preserves the state and traditional institutions from assault by Communists. 
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Posted by at March 28, 2012 6:57 AM

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