July 19, 1936: Republic or revolution? A review of Hugh Thomas’s ‘masterpiece of the historian’s art’ by Vernon Richards. ‘Anarchy’, Vol 1, No. 5, July 1961

Although the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 was followed by a far-reaching social revolution in the anti-Franco camp—more profound in some respects than the Bolshevik Revolution in its early stages—millions of discerning people outside Spain were kept in ignorance, not only of its depth and range, but even of its existence, by virtue of a policy of duplicity and dissimulation of which there is no parallel in history.

—BURNETT BOLLOTEN, in “The Grand Camouflage”.

IN THE PREFACE TO The Spanish Labyrinth Gerald Brenan quotes Karl Marx’s observation that the knowledge of Spanish history in his time was altogether inadequate. Marx went on the explain that this was because historians ‘instead of viewing the strength and resources of these people in their provincial and local organisation have drawn at the source of their court histories’. Paraphrasing Marx one could say that the inadequacy of Mr. Hugh Thomas’ The Spanish Civil War 1 lies in the fact that he is so fascinated by the personalities of politicians and military men, so carried away by considerations of military strategy and international political intrigues that he more or less overlooks the chief actors—the revolutionary workers—in a struggle that held the world’s attention for nearly three years. The military insurrection in July 1936 would have been one more coup d’état with which we are all only too familiar, for the Spanish government deprived of its real source of authority could only hope to save its skin by either arming the people or seeking to negotiate with the rebel generals. And in July 1936, the government of Casares Quiroga pinned its hopes on the latter. Indeed the socialist journalist Julian Zugazagoitia asserts2 that Quiroga not only refused to arm the people but also announced that anyone who gave arms to the workers without his orders would be shot. Mr. Thomas writes:

The constitutional means of opposing the rising thus met with failure. It did so inevitably since the majority of the forces of so-called law and order—the Army and the Civil Guard—were with the rebels . . . The only force capable of resisting the rebels was that of the trade unions and left wing parties. Yet for the Government to use this force would mean that it accepted the inevitability of a left-wing revolution. It is not surprising that a middle-class liberal such as Casares shrank from this decisive step. But once again, at the stage that Spanish affairs had reached on the night of July 18, such a step was also inevitable. (p.141).

It is interesting to note, since Mr. Thomas does not often allow himself to draw conclusions, that in his opinion: “Had the rebels risen in all the provinces in Spain on July 18 they would probably have been everywhere triumphant by July 22, when they expected to be. But had the . . . government distributed arms, and ordered the Civil Governors to do so too, thus using the working class to defend the Republic at the earliest opportunity, it is possible that the rising would have been crushed” (p.135). These conclusions, with their qualifying “probably” “it is possible that” do not reflect the modesty of the author, but are an illustration of Marx’s strictures. In his conclusions Mr. Thomas has considered everything except the attitudes, the opinions of the working people. What he is saying in the two sentences quoted above is: “had the military uprising worked according to plan and the workers remained passive by July 22, Spain would have been in their hands. But if the working class had supported the government, and had the government distributed arms to them . . .” The facts are that the militant members of the workers organisations were not passive but neither were they prepared to sacrifice their lives simply to keep a particular government in power. And their actions in July 1936 made it clear that they intended to defeat the military uprising and at the same time carry through a far-reaching revolutionary programme that would render all governments redundant. As Brenan puts it: The army then rose, expecting with its usual over-confidence to overwhelm the population of the towns within a few days. But the heroism of the working classes defeated this project and the revolution they had so long waited for, but would probably never have been able to launch themselves, began. . Spain became the scene of a drama in which it seemed as if the fortunes of the civilised world were being played out in miniature. As in a crystal, those people who had eyes for the future looked, expecting to read there their own fate.

II

Hugh Thomas, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, historian and adviser to Margaret Thatcher (1931—2017)

APART FROM THE FACT that Mr. Thomas, a former civil servant, lacks the human sympathy without which it is impossible even to start understanding the Spanish people, let alone writing about their actions3 during those momentous years, to this writer he gives the impression that he is more concerned with the techniques of writing than with the problems of writing history. For him adjectives are more important than factual accuracy. A serious history of the Spanish Civil War, especially when it has to be condensed within the limits of a 700 page volume, can well dispense with such details of the physical characteristics of the leading political figures in which Mr. Thomas displays an almost pathological interest. He wastes a whole page describing Manuel Azaña, the Socialist President of the Republic, ranging from his academic qualifications to his physical deformities: “he was ugly. His face seemed likely to burst open with its spots, and its heavy jowls of fat”. Mr. Thomas tells us, as if we might be interested, that Senor Azaña “was accused of being a homosexual”; that the Communist leader Dolores Ibarruri (La Pasionaria) was “always dressed in black” and that in her young days, apart from being a Catholic, “had wandered from village to village in the Basque provinces, selling sardines from a great tray which she bore on her head”: or that one politician had big eyes in a small head and that another had a big stomach and to big appetite. If Mr. Thomas had the space to expatiate on the physical and psychological details of the “personalities in the civil war one would praise him for his thoroughness. But when one observes that he devotes more space to Azaña’s spots and homosexuality than he does to Juan Peiró who is dismissed as “a glass maker” or to Durruti and Ascaso “two inseparable men of violence”

together these two had committed many crimes of violence before setting up an anarchist bookshop in Paris. Their most notorious crimes had been the murder of the Archbishop of Saragossa, the attempt on King Alfonso on 1921, the murder of the female lace maker of Madrid, and the celebrated assault on the Bank of Spain at Gijon.

or to Federica Montseny a formidable middle-class intellectual from Barcelona with remarkable powers of organisation”: that he gives almost as much importance to the Tragic Week of Barcelona of 1909 as to that of 1937: that he seems to consider the fact that Tom Wintringham, a member of the British contingent of the International Brigade, went to Balliol College. Oxford (p.376) and that the Brigade “included a large number of Scots and some Welshmen” deserving of more space than the 3,000-strong anarchist “Iron column” whom he libellously dismisses as the cagoulards of the Spanish Revolution who did not accept the entry of their leaders into the Government” (P.321) 4, then there is clearly something wrong with his historical perspective.

Mr. Thomas apart from not being able to see the Spanish Civil War in its true perspective is at the same time a plagiarist in the worst sense of the word, as we understand it. We are all plagiarists in that we draw on the thoughts, the investigations of those who precede us. But if anything, we seek to add to or confirm what out predecessors or contemporaries have written. No so Mr. Thomas as we will show by illustrations later. Furthermore his book contains no new material except for the 35-volume official Historia de la Cruzada (Madrid 1940-1943), which is one of the sources he has found “invaluable” for his account of the rising in 1936. We cannot challenge his estimation of this source since we have not had an opportunity to consult it. We would be more surprised if such a work, especially since it was published in 1940-43 when nationalist fervour was at its height and the repression was in full swing, were either accurate or objective. But that apart, what confirms us in our opinion that The Spanish Civil War is not a serious work in the way Mr. Thomas “edits” material with which this writer is familiar. He also has a gift for mutilating facts (e.g. ‘The May Days. the Columna de Hierro) as well as the material he plagiarises. Compare Thomas (p.15).

“The ornate architecture favoured by the prosperous bourgeoisie was the vulgar backcloth to a mounting series of Anarchist crimes. These years culminated in ‘The Tragic Week of Barcelona’ of 1909.

The Spanish Army had suffered an ignominious and crushing defeat at the hands of the Riffs, near Melilla. The Government ordered the Catalan reservists to Morocco in reinforcements. There ensued a week of rioting, in protest, at Barcelona. The riots apparently had no leadership and no aim, though it would seem probable that the Radical but anti-Catalan demagogue, Lerroux, did his best to stimulate the violence. Forty-eight churches and other religious institutions were burned. Drunken workers dance maniacally in the streets with the disinterred bodies of nuns. When the riots were quelled, the Catalan business men were generally ready to compromise with government . . .”

with the following passage from Brenan’s Spanish Labyrinth (p. 34)

“In July, 1909 there occurred one of those small disasters in Morocco which the incompetence and lack of organisation of the Spanish Army were always provoking. A column of troops advancing a few miles beyond Melilla to take possession of some iron mines for which the Conde de Romances: had recently obtained the concession was ambushed by a handful of Moors and almost destroyed. To replace them the War Office called up the reserves in Catalonia.

It was a stupid and no doubt a deliberately provocative act . . . The reserves consisted of married men of the working classes … There were painful scenes at the station when the troops left, and the next day the whole city rose.

For six years Lerroux had been urging the populace to sack, burn and kill. Now that the moment had come he and his fellow Radicals kept out of the way, but his young followers, the Jóvenes Barbaros . . . let themselves go. The result was five days mob rule, in which the union leaders lost all control of their men and twenty-two churches and thirty-four convents were burned. Monks were killed, tombs were desecrated and strange and macabre scenes took place took place, as when workmen danced in the streets with the disinterred mummies of nuns.

The riot was suppressed severely by La Cierva. One hundred and seventy-five workmen were shot in the streets and executions followed afterwards. Among the victims was Francisco Ferrer . . .”

It will be noticed that Thomas in the first two sentences of the passage quoted contrives to link “a mounting series of anarchist crimes” with the “tragic week of Barcelona” whereas as Brenan points out the latter was provoked by the call-up of reserves for Africa, and that “the whole city rose”. Brenan makes it clear that it was the young followers of Lerroux who let themselves go: Thomas that it was “probable” that Lerroux “did his best to stimulate the violence”, but he leaves the impression with the reader that the rioters must have been anarchists. Observe also the way Mr. Thomas the writer “improves” on Brenan. The latter wrote: “ . . . tombs were desecrated and strange and macabre scenes took place, as when workmen danced in the street with the disinterred mummies of nuns. In Mr. Thomas’ hands this becomes “Drunken workmen danced maniacally in the streets with the disinterred bodies of nuns”. Twenty-two Churches and 34 convents add up to 48 so far as Mr. Thomas is concerned. And note the way he concludes with a “when the riots were quelled” not considering it worth mentioning that 175 workmen were shot in the streets and executions followed afterwards, or that among them was Francisco Ferrer, a name still remembered with respect throughout the civilised world. .

The serious reader should not fail to draw his conclusions from such distortions; nor excuse them on the grounds that Mr. Thomas is simply trying to produce a work of literature as well as a history. Gerald Brenan has shown that the facts of history can also be presented as a piece of great literature; In the 10-page Preface to the first edition of The Spanish Labyrinth he gives an account of the social background of Spain, so lucidly and concisely that one feels every word is essential to the text. By contrast Mr. Thomas suffers from an indigestion of adjectives and adverbs, which are repeated so often that the reader, apart from being irritated by them; attaches no significance to them; and it is also clear that he is unable to present a balanced picture from the mass of material which was at his disposal.

Mr. Thomas also considers himself ‘a “dispassionate” observer. If by this he means that he can observe the events of 1936-39 without feeling we would agree. To our minds his is the most cynical book on the Civil War we have read so far. His pen portraits are nasty caricatures, and the constructive achievements of the Revolution are dismissed in a few insignificant paragraphs dotted about the book. His passionate dislike of the anarchists, on the other hand, never leaves him. He repeats Communist libels without questioning their veracity, and does not hesitate to omit from quotations passages that are favourable to the anarchists. For instance, on page 158 he quotes the famous interview between Companys and the Barcelona anarchist delegates. Thomas does a skilful piece of telescoping at one point, which is worth noting.

“Today you are masters of the city!” He [Companys] paused, and then spoke depreciatingly of the part played by his own party in defeating the rising. “If you do not need me, or do not wish me to remain as President of Catalonia, tell me now, and I shall become one soldier more in the struggle against fascism.”

The text from which the above extract has been taken (de Julio a Julio) reads as follows:

“Today you are masters of the city and of Catalonia because you alone have defeated the fascist militarists and I hope you will not take offence if at this moment I remind you that you did not lack the help of the few or many loyal members of my party and of the guards and Mozos … He paused for a moment and continued slowly: “But the truth is that, persecuted until the day before yesterday, today you have defeated the military and the fascists. I cannot then, knowing what and who you are, speak to you other than with sincerity. You have won and everything is in your hands; if you do not need me nor wish to remain, etc…”

III

NO MR. THOMAS, The Spanish Civil War is not a serious work and we have no hesitation in saying that the reviewers who have without exception hailed it as a noteworthy achievement reveal their own uninformed and superficial approach. It is significant that another book, The Grand Camouflage: The Communist Conspiracy in the Spanish Civil War by Burnett Bolloten 5 which appeared at the same time as Mr. Thomas’ has either been ignored or, where it has been reviewed with the Thomas book, received scant treatment. This is a pity as it is a so much more important work and in spite of the fact that it does not attempt to present a complete picture of the Civil War the reader will learn more from its 350 pages about the real issues in that struggle than from the 700 of Thomas’s comprehensive “history”.

The role of the Communists in Spain appeared to the liberals and intellectuals of the Left as salutary and invaluable not only because Russia was not then the dominating political power it has now become, or because these intellectuals above all feared fascism and Nazism and the general drift to the Right, but also because the image of a Spanish Republican government legally elected by the people, and struggling valiantly in defence of democracy against fascist generals had been firmly fixed by the liberal and fellow-travelling as well as communist publicists from the beginning of the uprising. The plan of Thomas’s book and the gushing reviews he has been accorded by the Crossmans et alia shows that these people have still not understood what happened in July I936 in Spain, and would probably still argue that but for the “discipline” of the Communists, the aid from Russia, and the International Brigades, the Republic would have been defeated long before it was.

Now the other point of view which was supported by the anarchists and a few revolutionary socialists throughout the world was that the military in July 1936 was repulsed by an important section of the people who had no more intention of defending the Republic than the Republic had of opposing the rising if it meant arming the people. The military rising in fact sparked off the Social Revolution. If then one considers that for a very large number of people the armed struggle against Franco had meaning no long as there was a social revolution to defend, then the role of the Communists in seeking to re-establish a central authority, disarm the people and create a military machine which was militarily speaking more efficient but also under the control of the political leaders, and finally, when they had the military power, to use it to destroy the racial revolution by terror tactics, political intrigue and economic blackmail . . . must be viewed as blatantly counter-revolutionary and reactionary.

Even so, taking into account that the scope of our authors is different, a comparison of the sectional headings of the two works is revealing.

Thomas: I. The Origins of the War (110 pages). II. Rising and Revolution (80 pages) 6. III. European Embroilment (100 pages). IV. The Siege of Madrid (80 pages). V. The War in the North (90 pages). VI. The War of Attrition (50 pages). VII. The End of the War (50 pages).

Bolloten: I. The Spanish Revolution (38 pages). II. The Rise of the Communists (52 pages). III. Curbing the Revolution (42 pages). IV. From the Revolutionary Militia to a Regular Army (80 pages). V. The Communist Triumph (39 pages).

The reason why Mr. Bolloten’s book is more interesting than the title would lead one to believe is that in order to analyse the counter-revolutionary role of the Communists he first had to give the reader a picture of the social revolution that took place and this he does in chapter after chapter with references which sometimes occupy more space than his text. For instance the chapter on The Revolution in the Countryside is only twenty pages long of which more than seven are source references. But in those references is material for a large volume.

The reason why Mr. Thomas’ book is less interesting than its title would lead us to believe is that he sees it as a struggle between politicians and between military leaders and one has only to read through the list of names of people who helped him and learn that in 1959 Mr. Thomas made a tour of the principal battlefields of the war, to appreciate this. But when will it be realised that the most significant period of the Civil War were the early months when even the Communist leader, Dolores Ibarruri, had to admit “that the whole state apparatus was destroyed and state power lay in the street”. History was made by the people in arms, but the workers seizing the factories and the peasants the land and working them in the interests of the community. Mistakes were made: there were many cases of injustice and unnecessary violence which anarchists have been the first to denounce publicly.

In which revolution have there been no injustices? But how many revolutions have truly been made by the people and how many have been as rich in social awareness and imbued with ideas of social justice as the Spanish Revolution of 1936?

IV

NO SERIOUS HISTORIAN of the Spanish Revolution can surely fail to be impressed by this deep social consciousness among such a large section of the working people. The Marxist taunt that a large anarchist movement was only possible in a backward, rural country like Spain overlooks the fact that the strongholds of Spanish anarchism were in the industrial part of Catalonia as well as in the rural deserts of Andalusia; it also overlooks the fact that the equally poor, illiterate peasants of Sicily, for instance, are Church-ridden, Saint-ridden, superstitious, monarchy-worshipping reactionaries; or that the highly paid, highly-organised industrial workers of Western Europe haven’t two revolutionary ideas to knock together.

The strength of the Spanish workers lay in the fact that at least that half who belonged to the CNT not only believed in the need to struggle against the employing class and all governments to wrest from them better working and living conditions, but at the same time never lost sight of their long-term objective: the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of the free society — or Comunismo Libertario as they called it.

Throughout its history the CNT has been a movement of, ideas and of action, a resilient movement that managed to survive long periods of repression and illegality. Its outstanding men of action have sometimes enjoyed the kind of hero-worship which has harmed them as well as the movement. And of course July 1936 was a period of action and great heroism, as well as of much confusion during which many decisions affecting the lives and future of millions of people had to be taken. The tendency for the men of action to take the decisions while the workers were doing the fighting and carrying through the social revolution in the factories and on the land was perhaps difficult to avoid. One thing is certain, that the decision of the CNT to enter the Caballero government was taken by the leaders and as Mr. Bolloten puts it “in violation of democratic principle, it had been taken without consulting the rank and file”. This was a capital mistake which deeply divided the movement, demoralised those of its members manning the fronts and gave the Communists—whose ranks had been swollen by the entry of shopkeepers and small farmers who saw in them staunch defenders of private property, and whose influence had increased out of all proportion as a result of Russian aid (paid for in gold) — their opportunity to demand the nationalisation of collectivised industries and government intervention in those agricultural collectives which had been set up all over Spain on the morrow of the uprising.

In wanting to “win the war” the anarchist and syndicalist leaders sacrificed the revolution and in sacrificing the revolution they could not hope to win the war. The history of this revolution that failed has still to be written and it will come as a revelation to those liberals and intellectuals of the ‘30s who were brain-washed into believing that the Spanish workers were fighting and dying to save a moribund republic and a bunch of vain, intriguing politicians. They will realise, as Mr. Bolloten put it, that in July 1936 the Spanish workers had set in motion ‘a far-reaching social revolution “more profound in some respects than the Bolshevik Revolution in its early stages” and who knows, they may even at this late hour feel the weight of their responsibility in letting it die as they sang the praises of democracy and legally elected governments.

V.R. (Vernon Richards-Vero Recchioni)

  1. Eyre & Spottiswoode (London, 1961, 42s.)
  2. In Historia de la Guerra de España (Buenos Aires, 1940).
  3. Gerald Brenan concludes his Preface to The Spanish Labyrinth with these words: To express here what I owe to the Spanish people for the kindness and hospitality I received from them during the years I spent among them would be impossible. This book, which I began in order to distract my mind from the horrors and suspense of the Civil War, is simply one more proof of the deep and lasting impression that Spain makes on those who know her.
  4. Mr. Thomas who was only four years old at the time of the Spanish Civil War and the cagoulard outbreak in France, may be forgiven for his ignorance, for obviously no-one who knows anything about the cagoulards, the hooded ones, a fascist organisation, would be so foolish as to compare the Columna de Hierro with them.
  5. Hollis & Carter (London, 1961, 30s.)
  6. of which all but 9 are devoted to the Rising, and the summary of that 9-page chapter on the revolution reads: The revolution—the churches burn—estimates for the number of working class and Republican assassinations— Seize mille prêtres—the checas—terrible events in Ciudad Real—responsibility of the Government. In other words, 9 pages of gory details of priest killings, personal vendettas, and a ludicrous story of anarchists taking their victims by car to admire the “superb Bay of Sitges” before they shot them.