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Socialist Review, June 1994

Hazel Croft


‘Days are like hours’


From Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Blood of Spain
Ronald Fraser
Pimlico £12.50

‘It was incredible, the proof in practice of what one knows in theory: the power and strength of the masses when they take to the streets. All one’s doubts are suddenly stripped away, doubts about how the working class and the masses are to be organised, how they can make the revolution until they are organised. Suddenly you feel their creative power; you can’t imagine how rapidly the masses are capable of organising themselves. The forms they invent go far beyond anything you’ve dreamt of, read in books. What was needed now was to seize this initiative, channel it, give it shape ...’

So Narciso Julian, a railway worker from Madrid, remembers the excitement and euphoria of the revolutionary wave which swept Spain in 1936 in response to the fascist threat of Franco’s thugs. It is just one of many inspirational quotes gathered together in Ronald Fraser’s classic account of the Spanish Civil War.

Blood of Spain tells the story of the Spanish Civil War from the point of view of its participants. Here are gathered together extracts from interviews Fraser conducted with hundreds of survivors from all sides of the battle. We see the point of view of the anarchist worker in Barcelona and the Communist militant from Madrid; the Catholic peasant who supports the fascists, and a deserter from Franco’s army.

The result is a unique lesson in the twists and turns of revolutionary struggle. The memories and stories bring the history alive so successfully you can almost imagine yourself caught up in the heat of the battles. Here is a member of the left wing group the POUM, for example, conveying the pace of events when workers in Barcelona rose up to fight the fascist threat: ‘Time is as different as when you’ve got a toothache: you don’t eat, hardly sleep, you forget where you’ve been, what you’ve been doing. Days are like hours, and months like days.’

Here also are vivid examples about how revolutionary struggle overthrows reactionary ideas – about women or religion, for example. The experience of the collective action of workers and poor peasants in defence of their own interests heralded a different morality:

‘The war bred a new spirit in people, it was amazing’, socialist Maria Solana remembered. ‘I was often sent round villages on propaganda missions with other party youth and there wouldn’t be enough beds. I, the only woman, would sleep in the same bed with two or three youths and nothing would happen – absolutely nothing. There was a new sense of human relationships.’

In a country previously dominated by the backward ideas of the Catholic hierarchy, considerable gains were made for women on the Republican side:

‘Abortion was legalised under controlled conditions, centres opened for women, including prostitutes and unmarried mothers, birth control information disseminated and “marriage by usage” instituted whereby cohabitation for ten months, or less if pregnancy occurred, was considered marriage.’

But Fraser’s book is more than just a collection of eyewitness accounts for he weaves this first hand experience into a revolutionary analysis of events.

Fraser shows how the strategies of the various parties of the left contributed to the defeat of the working class in the struggle. The victory of Franco and the ensuing 40 years of brutal fascist rule were a tragedy which need never have happened.

The civil war was not decided by military strength alone. The Republican side was militarily weaker than the fascists. Hitler and Mussolini came to the aid of Franco with bombs, planes and guns. Stalin’s Russia delayed sending arms to the Republicans. Britain and France were happy to stay neutral and see the left in Spain smashed.

A revolutionary war which built on the gains of workers’ power – a political fight against the fascists – could have provided the strength to defeat them. But the leaders of the Popular Front government – essentially a collaboration of those on the left with sections of the ruling class hostile to fascism – were not interested in pursuing the gains of the working class. Instead they stifled working class struggle.

When the fascists first rose up against the government, the leadership didn’t reveal news of the rising for 24 hours – losing precious time to prepare for battle. Instead of calling on workers to rise up against the fascists they called for calm and refused to distribute arms to the workers clamouring for them. Francisco Cabrera, who belonged to the Communist youth in Seville, explains: ‘We weren’t being armed because the Republican authorities were more frightened of the working class than of the military.’

To maintain control of the fight at the front, Communist and Socialist leaders had to stamp on working class resistance. A member of the POUM tells of how they held back the struggle: ‘... you could almost plot it on a graph – as the masses advanced the Socialist Party and unified youth, under Communist pressure, went backwards. Into the shelter of an exclusively Popular Front, petty bourgeois programme.’

It was a disastrous policy. Rather than strengthening the fight against fascism, such class collaboration weakened it. The resulting victory was more than just a military defeat, as Fraser explains: ‘For the objective was not only to castigate the defeated but to crush for all time working class militancy and the threat of socialist revolution, so that Spanish capitalism could prosper.’

Blood of Spain is a marvellous read. The eyewitness accounts of the participants are skilfully combined with commentary to create a complete picture of the people and forces which created the revolution and its betrayal. It is a must not only for those interested in Spain but for anyone who wants to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated.

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