Clearly Mr. Fraser feels the need to justify another 300,000 or so words on the Spanish Civil War. “It would be vain to hope to add,” he writes, “anything new to the overall map of the period.” His purpose is distinct. He set out to find something that “has remained unarticulated: the subjective, a spectrum of the lived experiences of people who participated in the events,” in order to “reveal the intangible ‘atmosphere’ of events.”
His technique is oral history: a wide range of interviews with survivors fitted with skill into a general narrative. Forty years after the Civil War these interviews often represent what people thought had happened, above all what they now think should have happened then, Hence so many of his interviewees are former Falangists, now bitter critics of the domesticated Falangism of the Franco regime which abandoned their “pending revolution”; or they are Stalinists converted to Eurocommunism who are now anxious to prove the Party’s consistent support of democratic pluralism; or repentant anarchists and so on. Their present views are nevertheless, as Mr. Fraser rightly maintains, in themselves “historical facts.” Memories of the Civil War, stereotyped and manipulated to present circumstance though they may be, are still an active element in the Spanish political mind. But memories lack the immediacy of the interviews in Mr. Fraser’s Tajos—in my view the best book yet published on Francoism in its process of decomposition, a book for which I have an intense admiration. Blood of Spain is much nearer to traditional history, and Mr. Fraser is an excellent traditional historian. His section on “Points of Rupture” is a perceptive and valuable piece of straight history.
Oral history of the past is a tricky business. When I went back to Spain and France in the early 1950s to collect testimony on the Civil War I found minds already set in defensive mythologies. There were some surprises. Communists might lie like troopers over the assassination of the POUM leader Andreu Nin but their memory for hard facts and statistics that did not compromise the Party line was infallible. Liberals were already lost in a vaguer, defensive vision. What did numbers matter in the war of ideas?
There were other surprises. The most outspoken critics of Francoism still allowed to survive in Spain were disillusioned Falangists (now enjoying a literary vogue in Marsé’s novel Girl with the Golden Panties) and disappointed Monarchists. Even Civil Guards, to the opposition symbols of Black Spain, grumbled about a mean government that would not pay them a living wage for sustaining it—one of Mr. Fraser’s informants asserts that to make ends meet they sold arms to the guerrillas they were fighting.
What worried me about my own research during the 1950s were the discrepancies between what was already in written sources and what people said. General Rojo, Chief of Staff of the Republican Army, whom I knew during his retirement in Madrid, was no longer the savage critic of moral and military collapse that he was in his book Alerta los pueblos published in the heat of immediate memory at the end of the war. General Kindelán, who more than anyone else had brought Franco to supreme power, complained to me of the Caudillo’s sad lack of statesmanlike qualities. Mr. Fraser avoids such contradictions because he is not so much concerned with the grandees and memoir writers on either side as with “ordinary people,” whose voices in history are usually silent and which it is the purpose of oral history to make audible. Yet even ordinary people mythologize. It is the sudden shaft of the experience, unforgettable because it is either so bizarre or so painful, that gives the sense of immediate reality to the book.
Mr. Fraser would accept, I think, General Rojo’s verdict that, arms supplies apart, Franco won because the Nationalists erected a political monolith that supported a unified military command, while the Republicans fell into the enervating political infighting of milles sectes bizarres. His concern for the defeated weakens his description of the mystique and morale that sustained the victors—a mystique that even spilled over into the hungry Spain of the Forties. You may not like the peculiar mix of Tridentine Catholicism, of propaganda that thrived on “Red” atrocities—the Nationalist version of the pornography of civil wars—and of the radical Falangists’ sense of “living within a process of Creation” in a new Spain. But it worked.
Republican morale weakened as Nationalist morale thrived on victory. Life in the Republican zone became a gray, foodless existence—in Barcelona workers did not turn up at factory assemblies because they were out searching for food; long bread and milk queues began at seven in the morning. Above all there was the inescapable deduction from the Nationalist radio—for this was the first war fought out on radio—that the Republic was militarily on the retreat. That Republican morale at the front survived when it was weakening in the rear is astonishing. Broken in the chaotic retreat through Aragon after the failure of the Teruel offensive, it was re-created to fight the last great battle of the Ebro.
There is a strong thesis throughout Fraser’s book, a binding theme which seeks to explain the political failure of the Republic. He assumes the existence of a potentially revolutionary proletariat whose élan was wasted by the mistaken policies of their leaders. When the apparatus of the Republic state collapsed under the impact of the Nationalist rising on July 18 and when, as La Pasionaria put it, government was in the streets, the proletariat should have seized power. It did not: there was a power vacuum, a chaos of committees. “The failure to create a proletarian power capable of mobilizing the population’s total energies in the revolutionary task of winning the war must lead to the establishment of a different power capable of organizing the war effort.” That different power was the orthodox state of the Popular Front, proposed and pushed through by the agit prop of the Communists. It committed the Republic at war to collaboration with, if not leadership by, bourgeois Republicans. One result was an orthodox military effort doomed to fail in its struggle against the superior orthodox army of the Nationalists.
Why did the proletarian revolution, in Mr. Fraser’s opinion and in the opinion of many of his informants, founder and abort? In Barcelona this happened because the revolutionaries par excellence—the anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT—muffed the chance offered them by the temporary collapse of the bourgeois state in July 1936. Bred in apoliticism and committed to the destruction of the state, seen not as the instrument of a class but as an evil in itself, their concept of power was confused. Blundering about with bandoliers and submachine guns they took the appearance of power for its reality. Confident that power was something encapsulated in their control of the streets and factories, they fell into the trap laid for them by Lluis Companys, as President of the Autonomous Government of Catalonia. They joined his “bourgeois” government.
The CNT leader Federica Montseny once told me she joined with tears in her eyes as she deserted the central tradition of anarchism. The CNT members became domesticated revolutionaries, making compromise after compromise which eroded their base of power in the militias and cut them off from the militant mass. They concealed surrender behind semantic devices—they avoided the word government—and symbolic protests. Accepting reluctantly the Communist demand for a disciplined Popular Army to replace the militia, CNT officers scorned uniforms and wore their insignia on leather jackets.
For their confusions and compromises the anarchists were soundly beaten by the POUM—the revolutionary Marxist party in whose militia George Orwell served. “In truth the anarchists didn’t know what they wanted. They had always called for revolution, said the revolution must be made, but never thought about what would happen when it had been. They went from concession to concession.” This is what Juan Andrade of the POUM Executive told Fraser. The CNT was a “colossus with a head of clay.” “Revolution,” as a CNT militant from Asturias put it, “isn’t the same as a strike which can be called for a certain day of the month. Revolution is a social phenomenon.” In Barcelona, the “Rose of Fire” of the CNT militants, the social base for the proletarian takeover vanished in the autumn of 1936, if it was ever there. When the POUM and the CNT militants staged the last futile effort to mount the proletarian revolution in May 1937—marvelously described in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia—it was too late. The opportunity of July had passed forever. The CNT leadership broadcast appeals for withdrawal from the barricades. All the deserted revolutionaries could do was to shoot the radio sets. As for the socialists, they made revolutionary rhetoric a substitute for revolutionary will.
Once the proletarian revolution had failed in July 1936 the politics of the Republican zone became entangled in a sterile and divisive debate. Should the war effort take priority over the revolution? Could the war, as the communists argued, only be won by maintaining the Popular Front alliance of the bourgeois progressive left and the proletarian parties as the back-up for a disciplined hierarchical Popular Army? This would imply clipping the wings of the “spontaneous revolution” of July. Or would the war be lost, as the CNT argued, if the revolutionary conquests of July—the militia, the collectivization of industry and agriculture—that scared respectable bourgeois on whose alliance the communists and right-wing socialists set such store were sacrificed and the revolution put in reverse gear? To the POUM and, I think, to Mr. Fraser this was a false dilemma: the POUM wanted the Republic to combine, not oppose, the revolution and the war by fighting a revolutionary war with the proletarian forces in the saddle. To the POUM the Popular Front was a farce and a deception.
No one can decide what might have happened in history. I believe the POUM position to be false. A proletarian takeover—as anarchists like García Oliver came to see—would have meant a proletarian dictatorship that ran against every libertarian instinct. It would have meant the end of Soviet aid—the Republic’s only source of military supplies given the cowardice of the Western democracies. Since a takeover could only succeed in Catalonia (and even there the POUM’s hope of winning over the Catalan petty bourgeoisie to a Marxist revolution seems to me a pipe dream), it would have cut Catalonia off from the rest of the Republican zone. Revolutionary war means guerrilla war, and the prospects of success for guerrillas were dim indeed. They rested on a misinterpretation of the guerrilla resistance to Napoleon in the War of Independence. Without Wellington’s orthodox army pinning down the French armies, the Spanish guerrillas would have been wiped out in a few months and degenerated into bandits. In short, whatever outrages and tactical blunders the Communist Party committed, their overall strategy was correct: they saw the need to maintain the alliance with bourgeois parties in the Popular Front and a disciplined army.
Mr. Fraser’s section on the CNT collectives, set up in the early, heady days of what H.E. Kaminski called “the Bohemian revolution,” deserves serious attention from historians. The anarchists take a mild beating. All the complex forms of collectivization they favored involved workers’ control, though not always workers’ management. Collectives set up for different industries tended to collapse into “syndical egoism” as the separate collectives within each industry operated as separate units in a market economy with no proper overall coordination. Fraser asks:
Was the Catalan revolution serving itself and the war effort by allowing, within a collectivized system, the continued existence of a market economy, lack of controls and a variety of types of self-management, of running deficiatary collectives?
By 1938 the CNT’s own answer was “no”; but it was too late. “In an infantile manner the workers have come to believe everything was already won…when the real social revolution begins precisely in the period of constructing the economy.”
Pressed by inflation the workers’ main concern, naturally enough, was a living wage. Revolution meant, not ownership of profits by society, but enjoyment of them by the workers themselves. Hence the failure of a proposal to set up a fund to finance investment. To get regular wage payments, collectives “pawned” their assets to the Catalan government, and some were paid, when raw materials ran out, for doing nothing. In the theater the attempt to institute a single wage soon collapsed when opera singers and actresses invited lavatory cleaners and box office clerks to perform on stage. It was not only “peasant egoism” that the architects of a new world found themselves fighting.
Fraser’s account of the agrarian collectives—mainly in Aragon, a region of widespread peasant proprietorship—is vivid and valuable. Collectivization was often forced on peasants who disliked handing over profits and their tools to the communal “pile.” Apart from any ideological or moral imperative, the economic rationale of collectivization was the concentration of small land holdings and the possibility of higher production via mechanization—hardly, it must be admitted, a cure for rural underemployment. Mr. Fraser presents some evidence that collectivization was not so much a daring social experiment as a convenient device to secure food supplies for CNT columns operating in Aragon.
Agrarian collectivization, as Mr. Fraser rightly emphasizes, was different from industrial collectivization in that it attempted to control consumption as well as production. Hence the abolition of money represented more than a symbolic rejection of capitalism; without money no one could buy outside the collective. Yet without money there could be no profit and loss accounts and only a barter relationship with the outside world—a truckload of olive oil for, say, a consignment of shoes. Agrarian utopias soon ran into the need for a more sophisticated accounting system than could be achieved by cutting notches in bamboo sticks. But unlike industrial collectives they could not collapse completely through sheer mismanagement. You can wreck industrial economy in a few months. To bring agrarian production to a standstill in a year of good harvests—and there were good harvests—takes something resembling deliberate sabotage.
Such are the reflections that Fraser’s book suggests to an “unreconstructed Oxford don,” who has been accused of a “witch hunt against anarchists,” in a letter to The New York Review. There is much more in this rich book than the themes my prejudices have selected. Fraser shows the horrors of the repression on both sides. The killing and brutality became more extensive on the Franco side as the Nationalist armies conquered new towns. The class the Nationalists sought to eliminate—with a brutality sustained by “a false sense of religion” that gave “a cold sense of indifference”—was numerically larger than the class enemies of the “reds.” Fraser follows the adjustments of the Communist Party leaders to their own rigid view that the “correct” stage of historical evolution on the road to socialism committed them to a defense of bourgeois democracy. He describes the tragic divisions in families and the silences at home after the war.
Years after the events “the acerbity of the tone in which political polemic” was conducted at the time has diminished and Mr. Fraser does not want to revive it. But extracts from newspapers of the time show how frightful public attacks on political enemies became the surrogate for democratic politics in the Republic at war.
July 19, 1979