Chris Harman


Between war and revolution

(February 1981)

From Socialist Review, 1981 : 2, 16 February–19 March 1981, p. 32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Blood of Spain
Ronald Fraser
Penguin £4.95

It would be difficult to praise this book too highly. It is probably the best book yet to be written on the Spanish Civil War. And it is written from a revolutionary standpoint.

Fraser shows how the Civil War was not just a struggle between those who stood for a democratic republic on the one side and those who wanted an authoritarian regime on the other. It was the culmination of class tensions that had been growing for decades. And these tensions were, in both town and country, capitalist tensions, between on the one hand a bourgeoisie that owned both industry and the land, and on the other, workers, landless labourers and some of the poor peasants. The picture was complicated by the republican sentiments of sections of the petty bourgeoisie, and by the reactionary, religious attitudes of the peasantry in parts of Northern Spain. But the central issues were class issues.

Discussion on the war at the time (and since) was dominated by one major argument: the argument defined by Fraser as ‘between war and revolution’. Was it necessary for the workers to abandon the making of a revolution in order to win the war? This was the contention of the Communist Party, the right wing socialists, the Socialist-led government formed in Madrid in the second month of the war, the Catalan nationalist party and, eventually, the main stream anarcho-syndicalist leadership. Or was it necessary to forget about the war and simply concentrate on the revolution? This was effectively the attitude of much of the rank and file in the CNT, the anarcho-syndicalist union that dominated the key sections of the working class.

Fraser insists that both positions were wrong. It was impossible to forget the revolution while waiting for victory in the war. In terms of conventional warfare, the republic was bound to lose, given that Germany and Italy supported Franco and that Britain and France were happy to see the left defeated. What is more, the revolution was already underway, with the enthusiastic backing of the vast mass of rank and file workers. To ‘postpone’ it meant attacking the conquests of these workers physically, demobilising them and destroying their enthusiasm for the struggle against Franco.

This was, in fact, what happened. In the first months of the war, Madrid could be defended against apparently overwhelming odds because, at the last minute, the people in arms were aroused to a revolutionary defence.

By contrast the cities where the revolution never really got off the ground (Irun, San Sebastian, Bilbao) or where it had been rolled back in the interests of ‘winning the war’ (Barcelona at the beginning of 1939, Madrid and Valencia two months later), mass passivity enabled the Francoist troops to march in against very little resistance.

The other alternative, of making the revolution and ignoring the needs of the war was equally doomed. Fraser shows the anarcho-syndicalist masses fighting heroically to almost defeat the initial fascist coup, and then going back to their factories and localities to build local revolutionary structures, giving the fascists a chance to strike back.

War is the highest form of class struggle. And it cannot be won without a single army fighting the enemy’s single army, a single strategy countering the enemy’s single strategy. The failure of the great mass organisation of Spain’s workers to see this meant that in the first months of the war, the revolutionary initiative in the localities was not translated into any national revolutionary strategy against, the armed troops of counter-revolution. Even in the localities, the individual nuclei of revolutionary initiative and power were not translated into coherent structures.

The result, inevitably, after a couple of months was victory for those who argued for postponing the revolution until the war was won. It only took a few military defeats for the republican forces to make the anarcho-syndicalist leaders see that a national strategy was needed. And since they refused a national strategy based upon a revolutionary state, they had to opt for one based on a non-revolutionary state.

In Catalonia, where the anarcho-syndicalists were strongest, their leaders (including Durruti) refused an offer at the very beginning of the war from the leader of the Catalan government Company’s that they should take power; from that point onwards it was inevitable that they should end up collaborating in structures of bourgeois power.

The firebrands of the Iberian Anarchist Federation became ministers just like any other ministers.

Fraser contends there was an alternative to the false choice of war or revolution – revolutionary war. This could have been waged, with success, he suggests. But it would have required the working class to have begun to build its own centralised structure of power.

The various revolutionary committees that had been thrown up more or less spontaneously could have been linked together into a national structure, providing the basis for a national strategy that was both revolutionary and military.

Everything then would have been different. The seizure of the factories by the workers could have been an aid to war production, not the diversion it often was. The enthusiasm of the militias could have been directed into the discipline an army needs if it is not to fall apart the first time its offensive is checked. The necessary repression against the many reactionary sympathisers within the republican held areas could have been organised more thoroughly, without the elements of undirected randomness which drove many non-exploiting sections of the middle class into the enemy camp. The necessary struggle against the reactionary structures of the church need not have taken on crude forms that strengthened the hold of the right over the more religious sections of the peasantry. Above all, the best fighters in the war would have been seen to be the revolutionaries, not those in the Communist Party who argued against revolution.

The positions Fraser argues are very similar to those presented at the time by the dissident communists of the POUM. But Fraser is prepared to criticise these as well on occasions.

The power of Fraser’s book does not, however, come from the bare bones of his argument alone. It comes from the way it is argued and justified. The technique is as revolutionary as the argument. For the book takes the form of extracts from hundreds of interviews with participants in all the movements on both sides in the war. This enables you to feel the class issues underlying the struggle as they were reflected – and distorted – in the consciousness of different social groups and political formations. The struggle is seen from the point of view of the anarchist worker, the reactionary Catholic peasant, the Stalinist commissar, the Basque priest, the fascist ideologue, the right wing socialist, the left republican, the fifth columnist in Madrid, the conscript who deserts from Franco’s army to the republic. It is this interaction of perspectives that enables you to grasp what held together the forces on either side – and to see how a genuinely revolutionary policy from the workers’ organisations could have changed the balance of forces.

The book is a very long read (although I had difficulty putting it down), and people with no knowledge at all about the civil war may find it takes a little too much for granted (if so look first at George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia or Pierre Broué and Emile Temime’s The War and the Revolution in Spain). But if you get the chance, read it.

Last updated on 21 September 2019