Lessons From The Spanish Civil War For A Divided Left

Before the Spanish Civil War, the left struggled to unite while fascism rose and dictatorship took hold of Spain. Today's liberals should learn from history.
General Francisco Franco Bahamonde accompanied by other military authorities – 1950 (Public Domain)

General Francisco Franco Bahamonde accompanied by other military authorities – 1950 (Public Domain)

Louie Dean Valencia-García is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right and Assistant Professor of Digital History at Texas State University.

In a turbulent world where leftists, progressives and moderate liberals have yet to find consensus on how to combat a globally insurgent radical right, the Spanish Civil War can give some insight into the challenges facing democratically-minded individuals—particularly for American Leftists and Liberals who remain deeply divided, despite Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Joe Biden. Some progressives promise disaster if Biden is elected.

Some leftists hold the mistaken view all moderate liberal candidates somehow are just as bad, if not worse, than an aspiring tyrant. Comparatively, moderate liberals make few wholesale concessions in regard to the progressive left asking to decouple health care from employment—getting instead partial concessions—even as US unemployment claims reach 22 million and people lose health coverage in the midst of a global pandemic.

While the Spanish Civil War itself was not the fault of the left, the blame belonging squarely to fascist and military insurrectionists, we can still learn something about the necessity of the left to find consensus so that to organize against a common threat.

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How Spain Devolved Into Dictatorship

In the first years of the Second Spanish Republic, established in 1931, leftist factions struggled to find any sort of compromise, often because of disagreement on how massive social change might actually happen. Whilst they argued amongst themselves, fascism crept in and took hold of Spain—leading to a dictatorship that only ended in 1975 with the death of the National-Catholic military leader, Francisco Franco.

The years leading up to the Spanish Civil War—the bloody conflict between various strains of anarchists, republicans, socialists and communists versus fascists, monarchists, militarists and religious traditionalists that waged from 1936-1938—highlight the challenges liberal governments face when entrenched ideological divides threaten to cede democratic rule to self-aggrandizing authoritarian and fascist ideologues—especially in the midst of a global economic depression.

When Manuel Azaña became the prime minister of the Spanish Republic in 1931, he led a coalition of centrist and left-wing parties, including his own, Acción Republicana, and the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE). Azaña first built a strong base by being a strong critic of King Alfonso XIII and Miguel Primo de Rivera—an aristocrat and general who led a parliamentary coup and was appointed dictator by the king in 1923. Azaña was considered a centrist and not a leftist.

Once in power, Azaña’s anti-religious policies alienated him from fellow centrists. Simultaneously, the wealthy continued to pay less in taxes compared to the average worker or farmer. Moreover, his initial reforms did little to break-up the land ownership held by elites and the church—further estranging him from the left. Azaña’s unbending centrism confused compromise and consensus-building. Neither the moderates or the leftists got what they had asked for wholesale—all being left unsatisfied.

Under Azaña’s administration anarcho-syndicalists—anarchist unionists who wanted to dismantle corporations and move toward direct democracy and worker-owned and managed models of industry—continued to engage in direct actions, such as strikes and sometimes violence, and strove to create a society that both valued individual autonomy and rejected hierarchical systems—refusing to cooperate within the parliamentary system. Anarchists were radical consensus builders; for them, compromising a popular vote was, in effect, rejecting democracy. In fact, anarchists were even known for voting on their battalion leaders in the midst of war. Only when it was too late did the anarchists ally themselves with centrists, communists, and socialists.

Azaña called for a vote to demonstrate confidence in his leadership in 1933, however, most of the leftist legislature abstained from the vote. A diverse coalition between right-wingers attempting to save ‘Christian civilization’—Catholics, nationalists, monarchists, and fascists, formed the Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right (CEDA)—, along with the center-right Radical Republican party, brought into power Alejandro Lerroux and a right-wing government. The right-wing government did their best to turn back the liberal and progressive changes that the Second Republic had swept in. In response, Azaña organized a ‘Popular Front’—including the Socialist Workers’ Party and communists. While the details of this era can fill volumes of books, which they do, ultimately, what happened is with each attempt at organizing the left prior to the Civil War some key group of potential allies was left out.

Hard ideological lines formed, particularly around the role of women in politics. At the onset of the Republic, women could be elected into office, but did not yet have the right to vote. Curiously, Radical Socialist Republican and member of parliament Victoria Kent Siano opposed universal suffrage because she believed women didn’t have the education necessary to vote—fearing religious figures would influence women’s vote and encourage them to vote against their interests. In parliament, Kent Siano debated Clara Campoamor, who had been a member of the Radical Republican Party and an unapologetic proponent of universal suffrage. However, Campoamor’s position alienated her from her party. Campoamor won the debate and the vote for universal suffrage in 1931, but both women lost their seats in 1933.

Despite some individual women having power, the issue of universal suffrage certainly highlighted the fractures amongst the left. The communist leader, Dolores Ibárruri, known as ‘La Pasionaria,’ a coal miner’s daughter who later carried the phrase ‘No pasarán’—they shall not pass—into battle against Franco’s forces, was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Spain and was always distrustful of both Trotskyist communists and anarchists. For Ibárruri, women’s oppression was something to be resolved after capitalism was dismantled.

As I write about in my book, it was a powerful woman, Pilar Primo de Rivera, the sister of the founder of Spain’s fascist party, the Falange, who came to both enforce and inculcate patriarchal and fascist ideologies under Franco’s regime as leader of the Women’s Section of the Falange Party from 1934 until 1978, when the current Spanish democracy was established. As seen in the Spanish case, both the left and the right can support individual women having some power, but both avoided giving women positions of power over men. Patriarchal values can exist across the political spectrum.

Historians broadly look toward the Spanish Civil War and see a left that quite simply couldn’t get its act together. It wasn’t until 1934, three years after the formation of the Republic, that Acción Republicana, the Radical Socialists, Liberal Republicans formed the ‘Republican Left’, later incorporating the Republican Union Party and the National Republican party to call for the restoration of civil liberties and legal protections for political prisoners that had been rolled back by the right-wing government, amongst other political demands.

Conservative Republicans didn’t want to admit socialists, communists or anarchists to the group initially. Some socialists, who spoke of revolution, like Francisco Largo Caballero, did not want to join with Republicans. The Socialist Youth group, which moved closer ideologically to communism, began to propose the expulsion of moderates from the socialist party. While Azaña worked for reform, PSOE yearned for revolution. Ultimately, despite all being anti-fascist and pro-democracy, the left was ineffectual at stopping the fascist uprising of 1936. The center did not hold.

A New Fascist Threat

On 23 May 2019, on the eve of the European elections, I attended a rally held in a public library in Madrid for ‘ADÑ’ (Ante Todo España, or ‘Spain First’)—a coalition of openly fascist and far-right parties which had come together to build visibility online and in the streets. In a crowded, slightly run-down auditorium, the participants sang old fascist songs and partook in rituals which had also been given a modern aesthetic.

Gone were the old fascist flags, replaced with flags either featuring ‘ADÑ’ in red and yellow or an X crossing out the European Union flag, recalling the nineteenth century, anti-Liberal Carlist monarchist movement. Leaders from various factions recalled a desire for national sovereignty whilst speaking of a nebulous Islamic threat, recalling battles against Muslims in the Middle Ages.

Gathering of the fascist and far-right coalition ADÑ (Ante Todo España) in May 2019. Photo by Louie Dean Valencia-García.

Gathering of the fascist and far-right coalition ADÑ (Ante Todo España) in May 2019. Photo by Louie Dean Valencia-García.

Most astoundingly, the speakers’ rhetoric surrounding abortion, immigration, and traditionalist family values wouldn’t sound too unfamiliar to an American at a Trump rally. The fact of the matter is the right is more likely to goose step in line than the left—which values individualism and discourse. Fascism, at its heart, pushes a white supremacist and nationalistic worldview, whilst prescribing set roles for women and men. For fascists, a woman’s role is to both produce children for the fatherland, or patria, and uphold that patriarchy. For fascists, the ‘good of the nation’ must take precedence over both individual rights and class issues.

Fascism marginalizes people with disabilities and queer people because they are seen as a drain on the nation or as a threat to traditionalist patriarchal roles. Anyone who compromises these values of how an ideal nationalist should be is seen as ‘degenerate.’ As recently as last month, at a rally held in Phoenix, Arizona by democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, a Jewish man, a Nazi flag was unfurled behind him. It is a stark reminder that this election is not politics as usual, but is a battle against fascism itself.

In a sort of anecdotal way, historians have long considered Spain a sort of litmus test for the future—early to establish its transoceanic empire, at the forefront of nationalism and liberalism and then also ahead of the curb in its loss of empire and its conflict between republicans, socialists, communists, fascists, and anarchists in the years prior to the Second World War. If leftist factions globally fail to see they have more in common than not, they run the risk of remaining divided in a moment in which far greater threats lurk. If moderates simply write-off leftists and their ardent desire for fair democratic processes, they will lose. If leftists refuse to participate until it’s too late, they too will lose. If those who are historically marginalized from politics continue to be excluded from positions of power, the left will lose sight of that for which they are fighting.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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Opinion // CARR / Fascism / Radical Right / Spain