Eighty years ago Spain was in the first months of a desperate struggle. The army, backed by every reactionary element in Spanish society, had rebelled against the elected Republican government. The Spanish working class rose, both to defend the Republic and to create a new and better society. It was the start of a bitter civil war, described by many as the first confrontation of the Second World War.
The war has spawned a vast literature, from novels through children’s fiction, poetry, biography, local and individual micro-studies to monumental histories and political analysis. Some are frankly shallow, partisan or hagiographical. Others are brilliant studies, Alan Sennett’s Revolutionary Marxism in Spain being a recent example.
Hochschild’s study of Americans in the war is definitely at the better end of the literature. The veteran journalist builds his narrative of events around the story of the Lincoln battalion of the International Brigade, in which served almost all the combatants from the US, alongside Canadians and some Irish volunteers.
The battalion suffered an appalling baptism of fire at Jarama in early 1937 as Republican forces prevented the encirclement of Madrid at terrible cost, then fought at Brunete, on the Aragon front at Belchite and Teruel and finally in the protracted retreat, counter-attack and retreat again at the Battle of the Ebro.
Using the accounts of fighters, medical staff and journalists and with a great eye for anecdote, he offers a gripping description of the heroism and idealism, while pulling no punches about the suffering, chronic lack of training, military unpreparedness and incompetence and the ever-present and crippling shortage of arms and equipment.
While the narrative is excellent, Hochschild does not duck the political context or controversies about the war and the Spanish Revolution. He discusses the role of the Communist Party in the US and in Spain, as well as the role of the USSR, the dynamic between revolution and war, the role of the anarchists and revolutionary Marxists and the defeat of the social revolution which had taken place in the first year of the war, especially in Catalunya and Aragon. These remain, even at a distance of 80 years, points of sometimes bitter argument and pose key questions which socialists have to think through carefully.
Hochschild uses some unusual sources and focuses attention on some aspects of the war which are little known. His examination of the role of US oil giant Texaco is a case in point. Not only did it sell oil to Franco — the one thing Hitler and Mussolini could not supply — but also bankrolled him, propagandised for him and offered key military intelligence.
Read about the Spanish Civil War. It will inspire you. It will also pose key political questions which we always need to debate about revolution or reform, about the state, about how a socialist society can be won, about what democracy looks like and about what a new world will look like. This book is a good place to start.