THE SPANISH LABYRINTH An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Civil War Gerald Brenan eBook £1.50/€2.00 (see eBookshelf)

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Written during the Spanish Civil War, published in 1943, revised in 1950 and republished in paperback in1960, The Spanish Labyrinth assesses the social and political background of the war, not the war itself. Brenan a middle-class, liberal, Anglo-Irish expatriate who lived in Spain from 1919 until 1936, returning in 1953 — wrote comprehensively about the political and religious divisions in Spain from the 16th to the 20th centuries: the church, the tensions with Liberalism, the ‘patria chica’ and the main autonomous regions, Carlism, industrialisation, the agrarian question, communal life, the Republic, the Constituent Cortes, class struggle, etc. — not forgetting the important role of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism in Spanish politics. And although his attitude to the Spanish anarchist–anarcho-syndicalist movement and working class in general is patronising and condescending, it is to an extent understandable given his middle-class upbringing, prejudices and friendship circles.

Brenan swallowed, uncritically, contemporary hysterical, calumnious and propagandistic accounts of ‘irresponsible’, ‘ruthless’ and ‘typical’ acts of mass terrorism allegedly ‘carried out by the Durruti column in Aragón, and by the militia in Madrid on their way to the front’. Describing them as ‘the counterpart of the September Massacres of 1792’, he goes on to compare Durruti to the fanatical ultra-Catholic Carlist general Ramón Cabrera, and refers to the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) as a ‘secret society’, which it most definitely was not (see my We, the Anarchists. A Study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927—1937). He also states as fact (and without adducing any evidence) that the advent of the FAI brought with it an increasingly noticeable trend in Spanish anarchism: ‘the inclusion within its ranks of professional criminals — thieves and gunmen who certainly would not have been accepted by any other working class party — together with idealists of the purest and most selfless kind.’

In spite of Brenan’s shortcomings as an historian and his ambivalence toward the Spanish anarchist movement, as a personal insight The Spanish Labyrinth remains a highly readable, comprehensive and valuable account of social and political life in Spain in the years leading up to the Civil War.

later Freedom, until her death at the age of 31 in 1949. She was the
 author of Journey Through Utopia (Routledge) and Neither East Nor
 West (Freedom Press). Her article was originally written for Now! in
 1944 as a review of the original edition of Brenan’s book:

Books about Spain have been written either by learned professors who 
write history ignoring completely working class movements and the 
existence of the class struggle and who therefore put fanciful interpretations on events they are unable to understand, or by journalists who 
feel qualified to write about Spain after spending only a few days or a
 few weeks in the country and without having acquired any previous
 knowledge of the historical background of the people. Such books
 sometimes contain brilliant passages, like Borkenau’s Spanish Cockpit
 or George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, but are also full of inexactitudes and hasty generalisations. They are also often written with a
 bias to suit the political fashion of the moment. Several books were 
written about the Spanish revolution which did not mention the work 
of the Anarchist movement or even its existence. On the other hand,
 because it is popular to boost the Communists, most of the work done
 during the revolution was attributed to them.

The Spanish Labyrinth stands apart from all these books, both 
for the erudition which the author displays and for his objective approach
 to the subject. Gerald Brenan did not use any expedient method to
 write this book. He has taken great pains to find the truth and to be
fair to all the parties he deals with, and if sometimes the book contains
 inaccuracies one feels that they are due to misinformation rather than
 to political prejudice.

Brenan’s book is made interesting and penetrating by his sympathy
 for the subject he has treated. He loves Spain and the Spaniards and
 has a particular understanding of the Spanish peasants among whom 
he lived so long, not as a tourist but as one of them, sharing their houses 
their food, their talk, their songs and dances. An historian should
 attempt to experience in imagination the feelings and reactions of the
people he describes, and he is able to do this only if he can, so to speak, 
put himself in their place. Brenan is extremely gifted in that respect.
 He has dealt with his subject not only as a scholar but also as an artist
and a psychologist. This has enabled him to understand actions which 
not being a revolutionary himself, he cannot approve, such as the 
burning of churches, the throwing of bombs, the killing of priests, the
 expropriation of landlords and many other acts of revolt of the Spanish
 workers. He sees these facts in their right perspective and makes fun of the reactionaries who, at the slightest movement of revolt among 
the masses, are prepared to see the whole working class as a mob of
 criminals. He effectively debunks atrocity stories, a task which, unfortunately, historians are not often willing to undertake, particularly
 when these stories are used to discredit national or class enemies.
 Brenan says that already in 1873 the most infamous stories were circulated against the Anarchists. The Carlists, who were the equivalent of
the Fascists of to-day, issued two pseudo-anarchist papers to give more
 weight to their atrocity stories. The front page of one of them, Los
 Descamisados (The Shirtless), bore the following battle cry : 900,000 heads! Let us tear the vault of heaven as though it were a
paper roof! Property is theft! Complete, utter social equality! Free Love!

After the Asturian rising of October 1934 accusations of atrocities
were again circulated on a big scale against the revolutionary workers.
 Brenan says :

The most incredible tales were solemnly told and vouched for. The nuns at Oyiedo were said to have been raped: the eyes of twenty children of the police at Trubia were said to have been put out: priests, monks and children had been burnt alive: whilst the priest of Suma de Lagreo was declared to have been murdered and his body hung on a hook with the notice “Pig’s meat sold here” suspended over it. Although the mose careful search by independent journalists and Radical deputies — members that is, of the party then in power — revealed no trace of any of these horrors, and although the considerable sums raised for the twenty blinded children had to be devoted to other purposes because none of these children could be found, these and other stories continued to be repeated in the Right-wing press for months afterwards.

Of the terrorist methods used by the Anarchists at the end of the
last century Brenan gives a very penetrating explanation particularly
important as these acts are almost universally condemned and are still
held against Anarchism :

The nineties were everywhere the period of anarchist terrorism. We have seen how the loss of its working-class adherents and the stupidity of the police repression led to this. But there were other causes as well. The reign of the bourgeoisie was now at its height. The meanness, their Philistinism, their insufferable self-righteousness weighed upon everything. They had created a world that was both dull and ugly and they were so firmly established in it that it seemed hopeless even to dream of revolution. The desire to shake by some violent action the complacency of this huge, inert and stagnant mass of middle-class opinion became irresistible. Artists and writers shared this feeling. One must put such books as Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pecuchet and Huysman’s A Rebours, Butler’s and Wilde’s epigrams and Nietzsche’s savage outbursts in the same category as the bombs of the Anarchists. To shock, to infuriate, to register one’s protest became the only thing that any decent or sensitive man could do.

One could make many more quotations to show that Brenan’s
attitude is not hampered by prejudices and that his judgments are not
delivered according to a fixed code of bourgeois morality.

* * *

The Spanish Labyrinth is divided into three parts. The first part
 describes the history of the old regime, and that is to say the political 
regimes in Spain from 1874 to 1931. This part is mostly a chronicle
of events.

The second part which, from a social point of view, is the most
 interesting, deals in detail with the conditions of the working classes 
and contains a careful analysis of: the agrarian question, the Anarchists, 
the Anarcho-syndicalists, the Carlists, the Socialists.

The third part deals with the events in Spain after 1931, after
 the fall of the monarchy and the institution of the Republic. It contains 
a chapter on the history of the Popular Front and a short sketch on the
 history of the Civil War from 1936-39.

It will be seen that the number of subjects treated justifies the sub-
title of the book: “An account of the social and political background
of the Civil War.” All the forces which came to clash during the
 revolution are analysed here from their birth and the study of this book
 is indispensable if one is to understand properly the Civil War itself.

Parts of The Spanish Labyrinth are of particular interest to Anar
chists and I should like to deal with them at length at the risk of giving 
them a prominence which they do not attain in the book itself.

The first point of interest to Anarchists is the relation between
 Anarchism and the communalist movement in Spain. Spain resembles
 Europe of the Middle Ages, when communes had a great deal of auto
nomy and when each member played an active role in the running of
the communities. Unlike the communes in Mediaeval Germany, France
 and Italy, which flourished mostly in the towns and were composed of
 artisans and merchants, the communes in Spain existed mostly in the
 countryside and were composed of peasants, herdsmen, shepherds.
 There were also communes of fishermen on the coast. Provincial and 
municipal feeling was therefore very strong and every town was the
 centre of an intense social life. This autonomy of the towns and
villages allowed the full development of the people’s initiative and
 rendered them far more individualistic than other nations, though at
 the same time developing the instinct of mutual aid which has elsewhere
 been atrophied by the growth of the state.

It is difficult to understand Spain if one has not read Mutual Aid,
and, indeed, some of the pages of the Spanish Labyrinth would form a
valuable supplement to Kropotkin’s work. Spanish communalist insti-
tutions would have offered Kropotkin a tremendous amount of material
to illustrate his theory of Mutual Aid, but it is probable that the material
was not available to him at the time. Brenan’s book has filled the
gap to a great extent by giving examples of agricultural and fisherman’s
communities which have survived through centuries, independent of
the central authority of the government. While communes in the rest
 of Europe were gradually absorbed by the state and had lost most of
 their liberties and privileges by the middle of the XIIIth century they
survived much longer in Spain.


There is of course nothing very remarkable about this communal system of cultivating the land. It was once general— in Russia (the mir in Germany (the flurzwang), in England (the open-field system). What is remarkable is that in Spain the villiage communities spontaneously developed on this basis an extensive system of municipal services, to the point of their sometimes reaching an advanced stage of communism . . . One may ask what there is in the Spanish character or in the economic circumstances of the country that has led to this surprising development. It is clear that the peculiar agrarian conditions of the Peninsula, the great isolation of the many villages and the delay in the growth of even an elementary capitalist system have all played their part. But they have not been the only factors at work. When one considers the number of guilds or confraternities that till recently owned land and worked it in common to provide old age and sickness insurance for their members: or such popular institutions as the Cort de la Seo at Valencia which regulated on a purely voluntary basis a complicated system of irrigation: or else the surprising development in recent years of productive co-operative societies in which peasants and fishermen acquired the instruments of their labour, the land they needed, the necessary installations and began to produce and sell in common: one has to recognise that the Spanish working-classes show a spontaneous talent for co-operation that exceeds anything that can be found to-day in other European countries.

When one takes into account the fertile growth of communistic
institutions, the mutual aid displayed among peasants, fishermen and
 artisans, the spirit of independence in the towns and villages, it is not
 difficult to understand why anarchist ideas found such a propitious soil 
in Spain.

The theories of the Anarchists, and of Bakunin and Kropotkin in
 particular, are based on the belief that men are bound together by the
 instinct of mutual aid, that they can live happily and peacefully in a free
 society. Bakunin through his natural sympathy for the peasants,
 Kropotkin through his study of the life of animals, of the primitive 
societies and the Middle-Ages, had both reached the conclusion that 
men are able to live happily and show their social and creative abilities
 in a society free from any central and authoritarian government.

These anarchist theories correspond to the experiences of the
 Spanish people. Wherever they were free to organise themselves inde-pendntly they had improved their lot, but when the central government
 of Madrid through the landlords, the petty bureaucrats, the police and
 the army, interfered with their lives, it always brought them oppression 
and poverty. The Socialist party with its distrust of the social instincts
of men, with its belief in a central, all-wise authority, went against the
 age-long experience of the Spanish workers and peasants. It demanded
 from them the surrender of the liberties they had fought hard to preserve
 through centuries and for that reason never acquired the influence
 which the Anarchist Movement attained.

Another cause for the rapid and extensive growth of the Anarchist
 Movement in Spain was, according to Brenan, the intense religious
 feelings of the people, particularly the peasants.
 This may at first seem paradoxical. The Anarchists in Spain,
 perhaps more than in any other country, bitterly attacked religion and
 the Church. They issued hundreds of books and pamphlets denouncing
 the fallacy of religion and the corruption of the Church; they even
 went as far as burning churches and killing priests.

Brenan does not ignore this, but he distinguishes between the
 Christian beliefs of the Spanish masses and their intense dislike of the 
Church, and one must admit that his interpretation of the relation
 between religion and Anarchism is very convincing.

He describes the Spaniards, and in particular the peasants, as a
 very religious people. By religion he does not mean, of course, belief
 in and submission to the Church but a faith in spiritual values, in the
 need for men to reform themselves, in the fraternity which should exist
 among all men.

At the beginning of the XIXth century a general decay of religious 
faith took place, but religion had meant so much to the poor that they
were left with the hunger for something to replace it and this could only 
be one of the political doctrines, Anarchism or Socialism. Anarchism
 by its insistence on brotherhood between men, on the necessity for a
 moral regeneration of mankind, on the need for faith, came nearer to
 the Christian ideas of the Spanish peasant than the dry, soulless, materialistic theories of the Marxists. The Spanish peasants took literally
the frequent allusions in the Scriptures to the wickedness of the rich;
 the Church of course could not admit this. The Spanish people in
 their turn could not forgive the Church for having abandoned the teach
ings of Christ nor could the Church forgive them for interpreting to 
the letter the teachings of the gospels. Brenan suggests that the anger
 of the Spanish Anarchists against the Church is the anger of an intensely 
religious people who feel that they have been deserted and deceived.

Brenan forsaw that his interpretation would give rise to many
criticisms (from the Anarchists and even more from religious people),
 and he says :

It may be thought that I have stressed too much the religious element because Spanish Anarchism is after all a political doctrine. But the aims of the Anarchists were always much wider and their teachings more personal than anything which can be included under the word politics. To individuals they offered a way of life: Anarchism had to be lived as well as worked for.

This is a very important point. The Anarchists do not aim only 
at changing the government or the system; they aim also at changing 
the people’s mode of thinking and living, which has been warped by
 years of oppression.

Whatever the cause of this attitude, whether religious or otherwise,
 it is important to stress it. Anarchists are always accused of having
 a negative creed, but critics overlook that Anarchism through its attempts
 to render men better even under the present system is in fact doing 
some positive and very useful work.

Brenan has seen this very clearly and he refuses to judge the Anar
chists through their material achievements alone. He does not consider
 merely the number of strikes they have carried out, the rises in wages 
they have obtained or the part they have played in the administration
 of the country. Their role, he says, should be judged not in political
 terms but in moral ones, a fact which is almost universally ignored.

For example, the role of Anarchists in educating the Spanish
 masses is often overlooked. While the Socialists thought that education 
was a matter for the state to deal with, the Anarchists believed in
 starting work immediately. As early as the middle of the last century
 Anarchists formed small circles in towns and villages which started
 night schools where many learned to read.

At the beginning of this century Anarchist propaganda spread
 rapidly through the countryside and it was always accompanied with
 efforts to educate the masses. The Anarchist press not only published
 books by Kropotkin, Bakunin and the Spanish Anarchist newspapers
 were avidly read. The Anarchist movement had several dailies, but
 more important perhaps was the great number of provincial papers.
 In a relatively small province like Andalusia by the end of 1918 more
 than 50 towns had libertarian newspapers of their own. The work of 
editing these newspapers must have provided the members of the 
movement with a good deal of education and experience. The work
 of  F. Ferrer in setting up free schools, the first outside the control of
 the Church, is well known.

This education was not limited to book knowledge alone. Anar
chists were expected to give a good example by their private lives.
 Solidaridad Obrera, the Anarchist daily, in an article published in 1922,
 says that the Anarchist should set out to have a moral ascendancy over
 others. He should obtain prestige in the eyes of the workers by his
 conduct in the street, in the workshop, in his home and during strikes.

They were equally anxious to bring honesty in the matter of sex.
 Brenan says;

Anarchists, it is true, believe in free love — everything, even love, must be free — but they do not believe in libertinage. So in Malaga they sent missions to the prostitutes. In Barcelona they cleaned up the cabarets and brothels with a thoroughness that the Spanish Church (which frowns on open vice, such as wearing a bathing dress without a skirt and sleeves, but shuts its eyes to ‘safety valves’) would never approve of.

The Anarchists tried to live up to their ideals within the movement 
itself. They had no paid bureaucracy like the other parties. In a
 country like Spain, where there is the greatest distrust for money and
 those who seek it, the attitude of the Anarchists brought them the
 sympathy of the masses. Brenan points out several times that the
 Anarchist leaders were never paid and that in 1918, when their trade 
union, the C.N.T., contained over a million members, it had only one
 paid secretary.

Brenan’s book carries an encouraging message for the Anarchists.
 Though he himself considers Anarchism impracticable, he gives abun
dant proofs that it is deeply rooted in Spain. Unlike Fascism and Com
munism, it would not have to rely on foreign influences to come into 

The practice of mutual aid which maintained itself in the village
 and town communes, the aspiration of the Spanish people towards
 liberty, justice and the brotherhood of all men, their love of indepen-dence which gave rise to federalist aspirations, all point to the conclusion
that only an anarchist system of society will be possible in Spain.

Here I must say, however, a few words of disagreement with
 Brenan’s conclusions. Though he admits that the arbiters of Spain’s 
destiny must be the worker and the peasant, he believes that a govern-ment (of the right kind of course) must control Spain. He does not say
 where a good government can be found. He declares that a government in Spain should not depend on the church, the army or the land
lords; as on the other hand he does not seem to believe in the dictatorship of the proletariat (which he rightly condemns in Russia) it is diffi
cult to see why he rejects so firmly the Anarchist solution.

He also advocates strongly the collectivisation of the land, but seems
 to expect that a “sensible government” could carry it out, when history
 shows that no government in Spain was ever prepared to go against
 the interests of the landlords.

I think that Brenan has emphasised too much the agrarian nature
of Anarchism. This is probably due to the fact that he lived in 
Andalusia, a completely agricultural region. Incidentally, he was criticised on this point by H. N. Brailsford who reviewed his book in the
 New Statesman, and who said :

I witnessed their (the Anarchists’) astonishing success during the civil war in running factories with high principles as their chief equipment, and I was deeply moved by the schools they established for the sorely tried children of Madrid.

Brenan also attaches, in my opinion, too much importance to the
 rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona. In his opinion all Castilians
 are authoritarians and all Catalans are independent and lovers of freedom.
 To maintain his thesis he makes certain errors of facts which it is not
 worth while to discuss here. He is again far from the truth when he
 attributes practically all the burning of churches to Anarchists; in fact
 the burning of churches occurred everywhere spontaneously, and took 
place sometimes in villages and towns where there were no Anarchists.

However, these are mostly details, and do not prevent the book 
from being a very serious contribution to the history of revolutionary
 movements. Brenan, who lived so long in Spain, seems to have been
 influenced by its communal institutions, and has written his book in
 the spirit of the craftsman of the Middle Ages. Like them he has
 produced his chef-d’oeuvre which is the test of his love for his art and 
his respect for his fellow men for whom the book is written. The
 Spanish Labyrinth has been created with that painstaking and disinter-ested love which characterises all lasting works.