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Why The Spanish Civil War Matters

Nathan Pinkoski on the work of historian Stanley Payne -- and its relevance for our crisis
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The scholar Nathan Pinkoski, writing in The Claremont Review of Books, considers the take on the Spanish Civil War by the venerable historian of Spain, Stanley Payne. Excerpts:

The Second Spanish Republic (1931–1939) suffered one of the most accelerated cases of democratic decline in European history. In 1931, Spain established a liberal, republican, democratic constitution on a wide basis of popular and elite support. In just a few years, the constitution was in ruins and Spain was at war with itself. How did this happen? Too often, Americans are taught a simpleminded morality tale about this period: the fascists destroyed democracy. But the true story of Spain’s troubled republic is much more interesting and instructive. It shows how democratic regimes can die from self-inflicted wounds.

He’s right about this. People who are worried that the US could descend into civil war ought to be studying the Spanish conflict. Stanley Payne is probably the foremost living historian of that event writing in the English language. According to Pinkoski, Payne finds the origin of the civil war “in the eruption of revolutionary politics.” More:

In the 20th century a new, revolutionary kind of civil war arose in Europe, pitting irreconcilable conceptions of state, society, and culture against each other. In these conflicts, revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries aimed to establish radically different regimes. Payne is fond of quoting Joseph de Maistre’s dictum: “the counterrevolution is not the opposite of a revolution, but is an opposing revolution.” Once the revolutionary process begins, the old regime is finished. Both revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries—who are ostensibly interested in restoring the status quo ante—must found a new regime. As Carl Schmitt observes in Ex Captivitate Salus (1950), the determination of both sides to establish a new regime is the reason why revolutionary civil wars bring unprecedented levels of violence. The goal is to overturn the whole legal and political order associated with the enemy, leading to the call for the enemy’s absolute elimination.

According to Pinkoski, you can’t really blame the Spanish civil war on the usual motivators of radical politics in Europe of the era. Spain had stayed out of World War I, and wasn’t badly damaged by the Great Depression. And Spain had a history of a liberal and parliamentary tradition going back to the early 19th century. No, this was a war that the Spanish chose. Pinkoski again:

Though a variety of parties helped set the revolution going, Payne argues that the chief culprits were the Spanish socialists. Unlike Bolsheviks, who seek to overthrow liberal constitutionalism by direct means, revolutionary socialists use the constitutional system to provide cover for their plan to dismantle it. They don’t overthrow the legal system, they exploit it. Legalists of the center and the Right struggle to respond to this tactic. In Spain, their failure was particularly acute. In The Collapse of the Spanish Republic, 1933–1936 (2005) and The Spanish Civil War (2012), Payne describes Spain’s descent into a brutal three-year war as the result of the socialist Left’s brazenness meeting the center’s carelessness and the Right’s pusillanimity.

Other European socialist movements began with revolutionary ambitions but mellowed as they grew older and came to respect constitutionalism and parliamentary norms. Over time, Spanish socialists became more radical. The most important leftist leader in Spain, Manuel Azaña (prime minister from 1931 to 1933 and again in 1936), contended that liberalism failed because it was too willing to compromise. He regarded the republican constitution as the beginning of a radical reform project—even calling it a “revolution.” Politicians who didn’t equate constitutionalism with leftism were ipso facto illegitimate.

I don’t want to quote too much, though I regret that the article is paywalled. Pinkoski says the Left could not accept the 1933 election results — won by the Right — because they believed history was on their side. So the Socialists did their best to undermine it. To support the Republic came to mean that the Right could never be legitimately elected.

Second, the center-left — the faction corresponding to our liberals —  would not stand up to the Socialists:

In Spain, it excused the violence of young socialists. Centrist authorities were unable or unwilling to stop attacks on private property, businesses, churches, convents, and clergy. Instead, they blamed the victims, arresting not the actual perpetrators but scapegoating monarchists and conservatives. As cultural theorist René Girard understood, this scapegoating does not break the cycle of violence, but intensifies it. When revolutionaries attempt to purify a corrupt state and society through scapegoating, those whom they kill become martyrs, whose sacrifice becomes redemptive for nascent counterrevolutionaries. In Spain, scapegoating monarchists and conservatives converted large sections of the population from apathy to anger. By letting murders go unpunished and unjustly punishing innocents, the Left created martyrs throughout Spain—galvanizing the counterrevolution and turning the conflict into a religious war.

This sounds familiar. We know all too well that the liberals who run most American institutions won’t stand up to the radical Left. Do not be surprised, then, if the Left goes too far, and creates martyrs of the Right — and then, should a leader arise who can galvanize rightist people sick of the double standards, it all goes off.

Pinkoski, reading Payne, points to a third factor, one of which I was unaware: “the centrist endorsement of unconstitutional action in the name of saving the so-called liberal consensus—what French political theorist Pierre Manent has called ‘the fanaticism of the center.'” He says that the Spanish president of the era engaged in anti-constitutional maneuvering to make sure the centrists stayed in power. Soon neither the Left nor the Right came to believe that the constitution was meaningless, and no matter how many votes they got, they would never be allowed to take power.

In the 1936 elections, says Payne (via Pinkoski), the Left won, but “the revolutionary Left used violent coercion, especially during the second round of voting. The center-Left also made last-minute and ex post facto changes to election laws to give their side disproportionate influence.”

The fix was in. When the next parliament took their seats, the Left impeached the center-left president Zamora, and installed a hard leftist president who proposed “mass confiscation of property, seizure of churches and schools, reparations to sanctioned leftists, and court packing.”

I bet many of you don’t know this: the spark that ignited the Spanish Civil War was the arrest and murder of a member of Parliament, the head of the monarchist party, by socialist members of the police force. How did the government respond to this outrage? By oppressing the Right. Pinkoski:

Yet the impartiality of the state was fatally compromised; it was now seen to be openly aiding and abetting partisan murder. The constitution was broken. At that point, Payne writes, not rebelling appeared more dangerous for many than rebelling.

The murder of the MP was what tipped Gen. Francisco Franco into joining the rebellion against the government. And that would have failed if not for the idiocy of the leftist Republican government. More Pinkoski:

There was no coup d’etat. The rebels knew that the political elites and most of the military’s active commanders would remain loyal to the republic. What they hoped for was a revolt of the captains. They bet on a general military insurrection taking place across the entire country that would take the capital within a month. But they lost this bet. By the end of the first week, all major cities were solidly in Republican—that is, leftist—hands. Most of the navy and air force, as well as half the army, remained with the republic. The Republicans controlled the arms and munitions deposits, the major industrial areas, and all of Spain’s gold reserves.

But instead of using existing security forces to restore stability, the Republican government armed popular militias. This unleashed an orgy of violence and destruction—mass murders of nuns and priests and others became the order of the day across the nearly two thirds of Spain that the Republicans controlled. These horrors swung the sympathies of Catholics and the middle class toward the rebels, giving them a wide base of support. The rebellion was saved.

Pinkoski explains that Franco’s coalition included factions that were completely opposed to each other. The Falangists were actual fascists who hated the royalists, who repaid the compliment. The fascists wanted an anti-clerical, anti-traditionalist revolution of the Right. Franco ended up siding with the Catholic traditionalists, though he managed to keep the entire Right united during the war years. He says that Franco did govern as an authoritarian during the postwar decades, with people “deprived of many public liberties” but retaining private ones (this is the classic difference between an authoritarian regime and a totalitarian one). It is arguable that only a strong authoritarian government could have prevented a return of the savage civil war. Payne believes that Franco’s success in bringing peace and relative prosperity to postwar Spain laid the groundwork for the collapse of Francoism after his 1975 death.

Pinkoski concludes that Stanley Payne’s work on Spain is worth reading because it shows how a liberal democracy can fall to revolution from within. As difficult as it is to imagine how a civil war could happen in the US today, watching the cycle of radicalization happening on the Left and the Right, and the growing distrust of democracy, and seeing especially how the center-left, which controls most US institutions, sees no enemies to the Left, thus alienating the Right from democratic institutions — well, it’s not as hard to imagine as it ought to be. The emerging reality that forces on the Left are empowering the State to come after our children — in schools, in popular culture, and in the law — is, for me, an “all bets are off” moment. I hope and pray that this gender ideology cancer does not metastasize.

Read the whole thing, if you can (it’s behind a paywall).



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