A review of "The Collapse of the Spanish Republic, 1933-1936" by Stanley Payne
(Yale University Press, 432 pages, $75)

The (Spanish) Republican Project

The 120 years of history prior to the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic saw a constant and repeated struggle between the forces of conservatism, rooted in the Spanish Monarchy, and those of progress, intent on modernizing Spain along the lines of France and Britain (and later on, Italy and Germany). The inherent extremism of the progressive elements, however, would cause them to self-destruct when in power. This last bit is important to keep in mind as we examine Stanley Payne’s work, and see how radicalism poisoned the inherently weak republican setup.

Losing its overseas colonies one by one throughout the 19th century, Spain never really recovered from its defeat at the hands of the United States in the Spanish-American War. Systemic shocks like this tend to create existential crises, which quite often lead to bloody revolution. The contrary occurred in Spain. Revolution did happen in 1931 with the exile of King Alfonso XIII, but it was a case not just of a system (monarchy) but rather a civilization finally dying after exhausting itself for over a century. It went out not with a bang, but with a whimper. 

The Primo de Rivera dictatorship collapsed, local elections swung heavily to republican parties, and the Monarchy saw the writing on the wall. There was no physical attempt to stop the transition to republicanism.

The republicans had the opportunity to sandbag this new regime thanks to the rapid changes in Spanish society over the past two decades. Despite (or because of) the dictatorship that ruled the country from 1923-30, the economy boomed. Along with it came rapid urbanization and industrialization. Spain no longer was a poor, agrarian, and rural society (despite the presence of 2 million landless farmers, mainly in the south). A more modern population would suggest stronger support for a more modern political system.

At this point, Payne injects an interesting concept: with increased living standards and the proliferation of economic opportunity comes the “psychological revolution of rising expectations”:

The result was the beginning of a fundamental social and cultural transformation, which produced the most fundamental of revolutions—the psychological revolution of rising expectations. By 1930 millions of Spaniards for the first time expected rapid continuation and even expansion of major improvements in social and political affairs. Unless the magnitude of the recent expansion and its attendant sociopsychological changes are taken into account, Spanish society in the 1930s cannot be understood. The radical demands that followed did not stem from the fact that Spain had earlier failed to make progress, but precisely from the fact that in many areas it had been making rapid progress. As millions experienced rapid improvement in their lives, they and others would be determined to demand even more.

A validation of the slippery slope theory?

The proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic also ran counter to the growing trend of anti-democracy, i.e. the rise of authoritarianism in Europe. With the Great Depression underway, parliamentary democracy increasingly was seen as an obstacle to the necessary reforms and moves required to remedy the situation that much of Europe found itself in. Democracy was experiencing a crisis of confidence everywhere, except in Spain.

This continent-wide trend should have seen Spanish Republicans treat their victory with a sense of caution, but they instead immediately began with political persecutions “without purpose,” despite being handed power. Rather than magnanimity, republican forces instead viewed conservative and Catholic opinion as belonging to a vanishing minority, and therefore unimportant.

Who were these Spanish Republicans?

Payne identifies three groups:  the bourgeois Left, the Republican Centre-Right, and the Socialists (more on these in a bit).

The agreement between these three groupings wasn’t liberal democracy per se, but rather an agreement in support of radical reform. They intended to repeat the same mistakes as previous Spanish progressives, who also failed due to their extremism. For the reasons stated above (societal and economic changes), their calculus must have led them to believe that Spanish society had finally caught up to the 20th century, and that their reforms had majority support. They were so self-confident that they intended to exclude the Right from government permanently.

Does this sound familiar? 

Francisco Largo Caballero (AFP via Getty Images)

The Socialists were represented by the PSOE, the party that governs Spain at present in the 21st century. On the Socialists:

The Republican left formed only the left-center of the new governing alliance, whose left wing was the Socialist Party. Founded in 1879, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) was a classic movement of the Second International that for decades had been one of the weakest Socialist parties in Europe.

. . .

Always treated leniently by the Spanish government, the Socialists had on most occasions followed more moderate policies, participating in elections and slowly building a trade union base. The profound structural changes of the 1920s and the coming of democracy enabled the Socialist trade union, the Unión General de Trabajadores (General Union of Workers; UGT), to expand into a mass movement, reaching more than a million members by 1932. The Second Republic offered the Socialists their first opportunity to participate in a government—something that the French Socialists had not yet done—an opportunity that they accepted without having fully resolved the issues of reformism versus revolutionism in their doctrine. The dominant tendency was to take the position that the Republic would produce decisive changes, opening the way peacefully for a Socialist system to be achieved without revolutionary violence. The UGT leader Francisco Largo Caballero declared at the outset of the new regime that as a result violent revolution “would never put down roots in Spain.” The Socialists also viewed the Spanish changes within a larger context as a new tide of democracy and progressivism that would roll back the trend toward fascism initiated by Mussolini a decade earlier.

Keep a close eye on the political evolution of Largo Caballero, as he would radicalize by the time Spain fell into civil war.

Inevitably, the inherent contradictions in the republican fold came to the fore, and the Radical Republicans were turfed from government in less than a year, with the Republican Left and the PSOE governing on their own. The main sticking point was the question pitting private property vs. socialism.

With the exit of the more liberal (and therefore conservative) republicans from government, Prime Minister Manuel Azaña became the face of the Spanish Government. His was a more radical approach to reform, as he rejected conservatism and traditionalism wholesale.

Azaña’s aloof, acerbic, and arrogant personality was both a strength and a weakness. His more moderate colleague Miguel Maura later wrote, “The Azaña that I knew in 1930 lacked the most elemental human touch,” demonstrating “disdain for everything and everyone, born of the conviction that possessed him of being a neglected and misunderstood genius . . . pitiless in his judgments of others and their actions; in a word, insufferable.”

Anti-Clericalism and Anti-Catholicism

More than any state repression, more than any economic exploitation, the republican government viewed the Catholic Church as its primary enemy. The Church was a roadblock in the drive to modernize Spain, and its complete removal from the public square and the destruction of its influence on Spanish society were viewed as the most necessary tasks at hand by the new government. In fact, this all served as the lowest common denominator for the ruling parties. It was where there was the most overlap, the lowest-hanging fruit for agreement.

Radical Secularism was the path forward, and, as Payne notes, it began to eerily mirror all the criticism it levelled against the Church and its Priesthood. It took on a fanatical tenor, to the point of resembling medieval religious fervour. Everything wrong with Spain was to be blamed on the Church.

As Payne writes:

The more radical secular ideologies themselves functioned, if not as “political religions,” at least in many cases as politico-ideological substitutes for religion. Only as a kind of religious warfare can the intensity of the clerical-anticlerical conflict in Spain be understood. Much of anticlerical doctrine came from France, and condemned Catholicism for every manner of ills: excessive possession of wealth of various kinds, oppression of the poor, maintaining an authoritarian internal structure, a supposedly overweening political influence, preaching political doctrines in church, sexual abuse and perversion, chaining the common people to ignorance and poverty. The Church was also blamed for historical abuses and the failures of Spain and of its empire.

The anticlericals seemed to present a mirror image of what they denounced, exhibiting extreme intolerance and desire for domination, which might be expected to stimulate an equivalent response in Catholics. Anticlericalism also showed a pronounced tendency to replace the sacrificial and liturgical role of the Church, inverting the Passion of Christ in anticlerical rituals, while the worker left advanced its own concepts of the sacrificial, redemptive role of the common people.

Does this also sound familiar? 

Laws were passed to deny clergy the right to teach children in the name of “public health.”

And then came the violence, years before the actual civil war:

Certain other restrictions were placed on Church economic activity, and public demonstrations of religion were also banned. The Society of Jesus was dissolved, priests were occasionally fined for delivering “political sermons,” and some of the more zealous city councils even fined Catholic women for wearing crosses around their necks. Very early in the life of the new government, Catholic churches and buildings became targets of arson and mob destruction in the famous quema de conventos of 11–12 May 1931, in which more than 100 buildings were torched and sacked in Madrid and several cities of the south and east, destroying also priceless libraries and art. The authorities then gave the first example of the left Republican habit of “blaming the victim” by acting to arrest monarchists and conservatives rather than the authors of the destruction. Later, during the spring of 1936, illegal seizures of Church buildings and properties would often simply be winked at by the Azaña–Casares Quiroga governments then in power. At no time did any of the leftist parties take the position that Church interests and properties merited the full protection of a state of law.

Once again, many striking parallels to the United States today.

Some reforms were successful, such as the public works projects, especially dam building. As was the expansion of free education to all children in some parts of Spain (though not everywhere, as the closing of Catholic schools caused some regression due to lack of resources).

Largo Caballero’s labor reforms were also quite successful, as collective bargaining power erred on the side of the workers, boosting their wages by a whole 10 percent over the course of the first two years.

Less successful were the reforms that targeted the Agrarian Question. Expropriation of land from wealthy landowners became law, but the end result was that middle and smaller landowners were the ones expropriated, as the wealthiest somehow managed to remain untouched.

Challengers Appear!

Now this is where it gets really fun.

Counterintuitively, the first challengers to the new regime appear not from the recently defeated Right, but rather from the Left…the hard Left.

Spain was unique in that it had a strong anarchist, specifically anarcho-syndicalist, tradition, unlike elsewhere in Europe where the far Left was dominated by Bolsheviks, and later, Stalinists. This was due to certain idiosyncrasies belonging to Spain, such a traditionally weak central state combined with localism, and the lack of the development of a large industrial proletariat (until much later).

The Anarchists were fanatically anti-Catholic, much more radical than even the Communists, and were the main source of political violence in the first third of 20th century Spain. They were the dangerous extremists.

Their labor union, CNT, boasted up to two million members, and FAI served as their political vanguard. Together they launched three violent insurrections against the republican regime, with all three failing and the result being increased repression of the CNT. The Anarchists were a mass movement with widespread support, strongest both in rural Andalusia and industrial Barcelona.

On the other hand, the Communist Party was rather lacking. Entirely directed from Moscow, their party base was minuscule up until 1936. Only then would they begin to take a prominent role in Spanish politics.

Manuel Azana y Diaz (Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

The overt anti-Catholic laws and the violence directed against Catholics and their chuches naturally caused the rise of Catholic reaction. Carlists began to train paramilitary forces in the province of Navarre. Other monarchists began to openly call for the return of the monarchy under a centralist and authoritarian regime of their own.

The only insurrection from the Right came courtesy of a weak and failed pronunciamento courtesy of General Sanjurjo and a select cadre of officers in Madrid and Seville.

Only in Seville did the revolt succeed for a few hours, the retired General José Sanjurjo briefly seizing control of the garrison and city before he was forced to flee. This revolt was even weaker than any of the anarchist insurrections and was easily suppressed. Ten people were killed. Sanjurjo was quickly arrested, tried, and sentenced to a long prison term.

The republican regime responded to these challenges by repression. The press was clamped down so hard that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini congratulated Azaña for his “decisive action.” The government passed the “Law of the Defense of the Republic” which led to the creation of the Assault Guards, a police force that acted quickly and brutally to any perceived threats to the constitutional regime.

Mindful of complaints that the special national constabulary, the Civil Guard, was armed only with Mauser rifles and not trained for modern crowd control, the Republican authorities set about organizing a new urban constabulary armed with clubs and pistols, theoretically prepared for more humane crowd control. Its very name, Guardias de Asalto, indicated the vigorous policy espoused by the Republican regime. Incidents proliferated as strikes, demonstrations, and insurrections produced considerable violence, which in turn prompted harsh repression from the Civil Guard and the Assault Guard. After two and a half years, there had been nearly 500 fatalities in such confrontations, the majority of the victims being anarchosyndicalists, and suspension of civil guarantees had become more frequent than under the constitutional monarchy before 1923.

This government radicalism also threw up the most important challenger, CEDA, a mass political movement of the Catholic Right. Even though it had a stated policy of legality and parliamentarism, it sought to capture the republic in order to create its own non-liberal society, much like how the PSOE sought to use legalism to create a socialist Spain.

Payne has set the stage by focusing on how the rapid changes that Spain was undergoing were mirrored the sudden shift towards republicanism as the ancien regime exhausted itself. Yet this new regime rejected the policy of consensus and instead pursued a radical reform project that for some went too far, and for others didn’t go far enough. Repressive on its own, the center began to erode as authoritarians of the Left and Right began to organize and become more vocal, with some resorting to arms.


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About Niccolo Soldo

Niccolo Soldo is a writer, speaker, geopolitical risk consultant, and shepherd roaming the Dinaric Alps, V4 and beyond. Follow him on Twitter @espressosoldo.

Photo: Universal Images Group via Getty Images