The Spanish Civil War

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Andy Durgan, Palgrave, £14.50

Andy Durgan's accessible, well written account of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9 is a timely survey of the latest research written from a Marxist perspective.

There are several reasons why Spanish events in the 1930s are worthy of our attention. In its initial moments, events in the summer of 1936 showed how workers were capable of preventing a right wing coup and taking power in their own localities and workplaces. Some 80 percent of the workplaces in Barcelona were collectivised as was much of the land in Catalonia and Aragon.

A genuine but faltering revolutionary process opened up new possibilities for workers, peasants, women, national minorities and Spain's colonial subjects. Without an exaggerated romanticisation prevalent in anarchist accounts of the Spanish Civil War, Andy Durgan points out that the considerable achievements of that revolution were both limited and jeopardised by the rebuilding of bourgeois state power. The question of the state could not be ignored and an alternative source of state power based on the popular movement had to be nurtured and encouraged if the revolution was to survive.

This book returns to the longstanding argument about how the war could be best pursued - by revolutionary war or appealing to foreign democracies and Spain's middle classes. As he observes, "The one time full-scale mobilisation was used for military ends, during the siege of Madrid, was an example of how this [revolutionary] enthusiasm could have been successfully integrated into the loyalist war effort."

The memory of the Spanish Civil War is an important part of the anti-fascist tradition in Britain. Hundreds of British workers went to fight in Spain against fascism. At the same time the British state had a rotten record - unofficially supporting Franco and pushing the hypocritical sham of international non-intervention.

Durgan challenges those who wish to rubbish the anti-fascism by arguing that there was a moral equivalence between the sides. The terror in the nationalist zone was "a slow exterminatory war" with the goal of the "physical elimination and psychological crushing" of the opponents of fascism which continued after the war with concentration camps and mass executions.

Many of the issues confronted by the left during the Spanish civil war have a present day relevance: whether the Soviet Union was socialist, how to fight fascism, what does a revolution look like and what kind of organisations are needed to achieve it. Surveying the literature since the opening up of the Soviet archives, Durgam reveals the double game played by Stalin arming the republic for a time while interfering in the politics of the republican camp by doing his utmost to undermine the revolution from spreading.

Historical advisor to Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom, Andy Durgan's compelling account, unlike most of the other works that are available, does not dismiss the revolution as a diversion from defeating the fascists and provides a sharp explanation of the course of the war that does justice to the revolutionary aspirations of the hundreds of thousands who put their lives on the line for land and freedom.