Revolutionary Spain by Karl Marx 1854

First Published: in New-York Daily Tribune, October 30, 1854.


The Central Junta failed in the defense of their country, because they failed in their revolutionary mission. Conscious of their own weakness, of the unstable tenor of their power, and of their extreme unpopularity, how could they have attempted to answer the rivalries, jealousies, and overbearing pretensions of their generals common to all revolutionary epochs, but by unworthy tricks and petty intrigues? Kept, as they were, in constant fear and suspicion of their own military chiefs, we may give full credit to Wellington when writing to his brother, the Marquis of Wellesley, on September 1, 1809:

“I am much afraid, from what I have seen of the proceedings of the Central Junta, that in the distribution of their forces, they did not consider military defense and military operations so much as they do political intrigue and the attainment of trifling political objects.”

In revolutionary times, when all ties of subordination are loosened, military discipline can only be restored by civil discipline sternly weighing upon the generals. As the Central Junta, from its incongruous complexion, never succeeded in controlling the generals, the generals always failed in controlling the soldiers, and to the end of the war the Spanish army never reached an average degree of discipline and subordination. This insubordination was kept up by the want of food, clothing, and all the other material requisites of an army — for the morale of an army, as Napoleon called it, depends altogether on its material condition. The Central Junta was unable regularly to provide for the army, because the poor poet Quintana’s manifestoes would not do in this instance, and to add coercion to their decrees they must have recurred to the same revolutionary measures which they had condemned in the provinces. Even the general enlistment without respect to privilege and exemptions, and the facility granted to all Spaniards to obtain every grade in the army, was the work of the provincial juntas, and not of the Central Junta. If the defeats of the Spanish armies were thus produced by the counter-revolutionary incapacities of the Central Junta, these disasters in their turn still more depressed that Government, and by making it the object of popular contempt and suspicion, increased its dependence upon presumptuous but incapable military chiefs.

The Spanish standing army, if everywhere defeated, nevertheless presented itself at all points. More than twenty times dispersed, it was always ready again to show front to the enemy, and frequently reappeared with increased strength after a defeat. It was of no use to beat them, because, quick to flee, their loss in men was generally small, and as to the loss of the field, they did not care about it. Retiring disorderly to the sierras, they were sure to reassemble and reappear when least expected, strengthened by new reinforcements, and able, if not to resist the French armies, at least to keep them in continual movement, and to oblige them to scatter their forces. More fortunate than the Russians, they did not even need to die in order to rise from the dead.

The disastrous battle at Ocaña, November 19, 1809, was the last great pitched battle which the Spaniards fought; from that time they confined themselves to guerrilla warfare. The mere fact of the abandonment of regular warfare proves the disappearance of the national before the local centers of Government. When the disasters of the standing army became regular, the rising of the guerrillas became general, and the body of the people, hardly thinking of the national defeats, exulted in the local successes of their heroes. In this point at least the Central Junta shared the popular delusion. Fuller accounts were given in the Gaceta of an affair of guerrillas than of the battle of Ocaña.

As Don Quixote had protested with his lance against gunpowder, so the guerrillas protested against Napoleon, only with different success.

“These guerrillas,” says the Austrian Military journal (Vol. I, 1821), “carried their basis in themselves, as it were, and every operation against them terminated in the disappearance of its object.”

There are three periods to be distinguished in the history of the guerrilla warfare. In the first period the population of whole provinces took up arms and made a partisan warfare, as in Galicia and Asturias. In the second period, guerrilla bands formed of the wrecks of the Spanish armies, of Spanish deserters from the French armies, of smugglers, etc., carried on the war as their own cause, independently of all foreign influence and agreeably to their immediate interest. Fortunate events and circumstances frequently brought whole districts under their colors. As long as the guerrillas were thus constituted, they made no formidable appearance as a body, but were nevertheless extremely dangerous to the French. They formed the basis of an actual armament of the people. As soon as an opportunity for a capture offered itself, or a combined enterprise was meditated, the most active and daring among the people came out and joined the guerrillas. They rushed with the utmost rapidity upon their booty, or placed themselves in order of battle, according to the object of their undertaking. It was not uncommon to see them standing out a whole day in sight of a vigilant enemy, in order to intercept a carrier or to capture supplies. It was in this way that the younger Mina captured the Viceroy of Navarra, appointed by Joseph Bonaparte, and that Julian made a prisoner of the Commandant of Ciudad Rodrigo. As soon as the enterprise was completed, everybody went his own way, and armed men were seen scattering in all directions; but the associated peasants quietly returned to their common occupation without “as much as their absence having been noticed.” Thus the communication on all the roads was closed. Thousands of enemies were on the spot, though not one could be discovered. No courier could be dispatched without being taken; no supplies could set out without being intercepted; in short, no movement could be effected without being observed by a hundred eyes. At the same time, there existed no means of striking at the root of a combination of this kind. The French were obliged to be constantly armed against an enemy who, continually flying, always reappeared, and was everywhere without being actually seen, the mountains serving as so many curtains.

“It was,” says the Abbé de Pradt, “neither battles nor engagements which exhausted the French forces, but the incessant molestations of an invisible enemy, who, if pursued, became lost among the people, out of which he reappeared immediately afterward with renewed strength. The lion in the fable tormented to death by a gnat gives a true picture of the French army.”

In their third period, the guerrillas aped the regularity of the standing army, swelled their corps to the number of from 3,000 to 6,000 men, ceased to be the concern of whole districts, and fell into the hands of a few leaders, who made such use of them as best suited their own purposes. This change in the system of the guerrillas gave the French, in their contests with them, considerable advantage. Rendered incapable by their great numbers to conceal themselves, and to suddenly disappear without being forced into battle, as they had formerly done, the guerrilleros were now frequently overtaken, defeated, dispersed, and disabled for a length of time from offering any further molestation.

By comparing the three periods of guerrilla warfare with the political history of Spain, it is found that they represent the respective degrees into which the counter-revolutionary spirit of the Government had succeeded in cooling the spirit of the people. Beginning with the rise of whole populations, the partisan war was next carried on by guerrilla bands, of which whole districts formed the reserve and terminated in corps francs continually on the point of dwindling into banditti, or sinking down to the level of standing regiments.

Estrangement from the Supreme Government, relaxed discipline, continual disasters, constant formation, decomposition, and recomposition during six years of the cadrez must have necessarily stamped upon the body of the Spanish army the character of praetorianism, making them equally ready to become the tools or the scourges of their chiefs. The generals themselves had necessarily participated in, quarrelled with, or conspired against the Central Government, and always thrown the weight of their sword into the political balance. Thus Cuesta, who afterwards seemed to win the confidence of the Central Junta at the same rate that he lost the battles of the country, had begun by conspiring with the Consejo Real and by arresting the Leonese deputies to the Central Junta. General Morla himself, a member of the Central Junta, went over into the Bonapartist camp, after he had surrendered Madrid to the French. The coxcombical Marquis de las Romerias, also a member of the Junta, conspired with the vainglorious Francisco Palafox, the wretched Montijo, and the turbulent Junta of Seville against it. The Generals Castaños, Blake, La Bisbal (an O'Donnell) figured and intrigued successively at the times of the Cortes as regents, and the Captain-General of Valencia, Don Javier Elío, surrendered Spain finally to the mercies of Ferdinand VII. The praetorian element was certainly more developed with the generals than with their troops.

On the other hand, the army and guerrilleros — which received during the war part of their chiefs, like Porlier, Lacy, Eroles and Villacampa, from the ranks of distinguished officers of the line, while the line in its turn afterward received guerrilla chiefs, like Mina, Empecinado, etc. — were the most revolutionized portion of Spanish society, recruited as they were from all ranks, including the whole of the fiery, aspiring and patriotic youth, inaccessible to the soporific influence of the Central Government; emancipated from the shackles of the ancient regime; part of them, like Riego, returning after some years’ captivity in France. We are, then, not to be surprised at the influence exercised by the Spanish army in subsequent commotions; neither when taking the revolutionary initiative, nor when spoiling the revolution by praetorianism.

As to the guerrillas, it is evident that, having for some years figured upon the theater of sanguinary contests, taken to roving habits, freely indulged all their passions of hatred, revenge, and love of plunder, they must, in times of peace, form a most dangerous mob, always ready at a nod, in the name of any party or principle, to step forward for him who is able to give them good pay or to afford them a pretext for plundering excursions.