The Spanish Civil War formally ended in 1939 with the unconditional surrender of the Republican forces to the Nationalist Rebels led by General Francisco Franco. The war lasted thirty-three months. The shooting stopped but the fighting continues because the antipodal ideological fissures that initially motivated the combatants have never been closed. They persist into the present day existing as “moral trenches” over which the mutual assaults continue without cessation. They fuel a perpetual civil war that began in the 1930s in Spain but is now a venue and an opportunity for contemporary ideologues anywhere in the world to engage in self-exoneration and moral condemnation and to connive at political and social retribution.
One strategy for gaining advantage in the post-shooting, ideological war that is now the Spanish Civil War of the 21st century is for the ideologue-combatants to seek the status of – “The Victim”. Insofar as it can be established that the representatives of one’s cause are victims, one can then shape and own the moral vocabulary that articulates the motivations and character of the participants and thus exert enormous control over the interpretation of historical events.
There are two distinct ways in the modern world to become a victim. The first is to be an individual who suffers from an act of evil, moral or physical, deliberately inflicted by another individual or individuals. Any outside observer will immediately experience vicariously what it must feel like to be an individual who succumbs to the violence, depredation or fraud committed by another individual. A woman raped, a man robbed and beaten, a child sexually molested by an adult, an elderly person defrauded of his life savings by a confidence man – with any of these predations one reflexively empathizes with the victim and feels loathing and contempt for the perpetrator. Both the innocence of the victim and the culpability of the aggressor are unassailable. The moral polarity is inescapable and primal.
The second way to be a victim is a more complicated story and requires the mediation of theoretical constructs. In fact, this kind of victim is a theoretical construct of a particular sort that is at once compelling, broadly encompassing and far reaching.
The theoretically-constructed victim sprung from the brain of a German theorizer of mythic stature, Karl Marx, in the form of a Manifesto, the intention of which was not only to announce the existence of a historically determined class of victims, but to stir them to action against the aggressors as well.
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles…. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.… Workers of the world arise and unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.” (The Communist Manifesto, 1848)
Herein lies the theoretical foundation from which emerged the prototype “victim” of the modern age, one identified as member of an oppressed collective class, a production of the operation of laws of historical necessity. These laws (asserted to be both explanatory and predictive) Marx himself claimed were a momentous discovery and one cannot but be deeply impressed by the arrogance of his radical reductionism. For all of the richness and complexity in how it might seem to unfold, history, peeled down to its essential core, is for Marx a story of unrelenting oppression, one that features a world of human beings who fall into two conflicting camps, victims and victimizers. All social intercourse, however benign or innocent its appearances may present themselves, is about someone using and dominating someone else.
The identity of Marx’s victims is not as immediately and strikingly apparent as it is with the first kind of victim. It must be filtered by a properly accoutered intellectual class through the hermeneutical lens of dialectical materialism. Thus emerges the “theorist”, a privileged “knower”, as we see with Marx himself. But the knower is also a “doer”, a revolutionary destined to take power and complete the destruction of the bourgeois oppressors.
Marx’s formation and family origins were completely bourgeois, not a trivial detail to note as it points to an insidious element of self-hatred deeply embedded in the radical dynamics of Marxist theorizing. Theorists dedicated to revolution from Marx and Engels in the 1840s to Bill Ayres and many of the U.S. radicals in the 1960s have tended to come from the families of the well off and socially advantaged. Their judgment of the bourgeois “ruling class” as an instrument of exploitation was not just the conclusion of a detached, theoretical act of judgment; it erupted from a deep personal animus as well and as such is suggestive of pathological motivations and implacable hatred. Successful communist revolutions did not merely overthrow the ruling class, they savagely annihilated it. Those theorists, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, who during the twentieth century successfully took power and presided over the masses in large portions of the globe on behalf of the exploited class turned out to be mass murderers and destroyers of epic proportions.
The role of the theorist is critical because the victims may not know that they are victims and be unable to even recognize their oppressors for what they are and what they do. Their consciousness needs to be “raised”, a moral and psychological awakening expertly guided by the theorists. Also, the exploitation of the victims is imposed largely through a rationalization of the oppressive status-quo. Thus, another piece of the theorist’s labor is to expose the rationalization as an elaborate disguise of the identity of the oppressor and to illuminate the façade of his legitimacy. The victim insofar as he believes the substance of the oppressor’s rationalized version of reality gives assent to the terms of his own bondage. The theorist is a “de-legitimizer”. His intended wreckage of the status-quo opens the path to the victim’s “liberation.”
Unlike the first kind of victim, Marx’s victim plays a starring and triumphal role in a grand historical morality play. By virtue of the part his victim plays and the suffering he endures as a member of an exploited class he becomes endowed with a transcendent moral superiority because he functions at a huge disadvantage within a system that is from the beginning completely rigged against him by powerful forces that not only exploit him but conceal the exploitative relationship from him. Bertrand Russell has called this ‘the doctrine of the superior virtue of the oppressed”.
Because the system itself and those who run it are thoroughly corrupt, those who are its victims are innocent and even heroic insofar as they struggle against the system. Whatever resistance then the victim makes against the exploiters and oppressors, his methods are justified. Marx envisioned his oppressed and down trodden proletariat as a force of fury and rectification whose violence in service to a revolution would put a righteous end to the exploitative system that was the cause of their suffering, their victimhood. A letter Stalin wrote to Maxim Gorky in 1930 captures not only the sense of moral superiority of the forces of liberation, but a seeming eager anticipation of an ensuing season of violence and destruction resembling the fascist affinity for “therapeutic violence”. “We are for a liberating, anti-imperialist, revolutionary war despite the fact that such a war, as is known, not only is not free from the ‘horrors of bloodshed’ but abounds in them.” (Stanley Payne, The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union and Communism, 25)
Marx’s concept of “class struggle”, the imbedded premise in all genuine historical understanding and the engine of human progress, has deeply insinuated itself into our thinking and interpretation of social conflict reaching far beyond his failed prediction of a titanic clash of the proletariat and the capitalists exploiters that would culminate in a world of material plenty, free of domination and exploitation. The most attractive, compelling and enduring feature of Marx’s morality play is the notion of the morally privileged victim. To achieve the status of a victim within the kind of framework set down by Marx entitles one to immunity from the norms of the existing order because these norms are invented and enforced by the oppressor. They serve only his interest and advantage.
Two key things emerge from this immunity. First, the absence of moral limitations on what the victim can do in engagement with the oppressor class is greatly empowering, “liberating” to employ a morally charged term from the Marxist Wörterbuch. Whatever he does to bring the system down, to defeat it, is permissible because the system is inherently unjust and oppressive. For the Marxist, law is a capitalist tool of domination; morality is a bourgeois fraud, and thus the legal and moral norms of the existing order can have no claim on the proletariat, the victim class. Lying, theft and murder are permissible if they advance the cause and ultimate victory of the victim class. (See, Charles Mills “The Moral Epistemology of Stalinism,” Politics & Society, V. 22, No. 1, March 1994, 37-51)
Second, the oppressor class for all of its iniquities remains bound to its own bourgeois norms and legal system, and if in its defense its members lie, break promises, suborn and corrupt officials, steal and murder they betray their own professed principles and provide the victim class with further evidence of their utter corruption, hypocrisy and loss of legitimacy.
With this kind of “differential” in the moral boundaries, whatever the outcome of the struggle between the victim and the oppressor, the victim prevails. If he wins, he has heroically participated in the righteous overturning of an unjust order and succeeded in liberating himself and his fellows from the jaws of exploitation. The world thereafter is a more decent, just and happy place. If he loses in the struggle to the lords of reaction, he becomes a tragic hero resisting the oppressor, overwhelmed by brute superior material force. Even his defeat, however, becomes further historical testimony to the raw power, the amoral character, and voracious malevolence of the rigged system he failed to bring down. He then forever wears the martyr’s crown.
The Spanish Civil War is the Left’s finest hour of tragic-heroism, the perfect Marxist morality play – the progressive, democratically elected Republican government, struggling valiantly against great odds, abandoned by the Nazi-appeasing British and French, crushed by Spanish fascism in collusion with and abetted by Hitler and Mussolini.
The history of the Spanish Civil War interpreted from this perspective is an invitation to celebrate the tragic heroism and martyrdom of the Republicans, to exonerate the losers in the conflict as innocent victims of fascist aggression and to accentuate the mindless brutality and the innate atavism of twentieth-century fascism.
There are enough elements of truth in this interpretation to make it extremely attractive and compelling, as it has been for the last seventy-five years. But the “sale” has never been completely made, as evidenced by the persistent polemical battle waged by the historians and politicians, due in part because the specter of Soviet communism in the 1930s, communist machinations in Spain and Stalin’s ultimate collusion and partnership with Hitler in 1939 have always provided a competing narrative with a different set of victims and a more complicated picture. In the crudest, simplest terms, the Spanish Civil War, like the French and Bolshevik revolutions, was a violent clash between the defenders of the old order (religious, past-referencing and hierarchical) and the hopefuls of a new order (secular, anti-clerical and egalitarian). Whoever wins or loses with these sorts of cataclysmic struggles, there are victims. The lives of large numbers of people are destroyed, their world shattered.
While the Republicans invoked the rise of fascism in central and southern Europe and the specter of Hitler, the Nationalists launched their rebellion fearing an eventual communist takeover of Spain. They loathed and feared the communists. In light of what the world’s most powerful communist, Joseph Stalin, had done to his own people by 1936, a fear of communism might not be an unreasonable one. Early into the conflict Stalin was contributing weapons and military expert advisers, as well as the formation and recruitment of the International Brigades that saved Madrid from falling to Franco’s army in the autumn of 1936. Unlike Franco whose intentions and rhetoric were clear and obvious, the communists under Stalin’s tutelage were master dissimulators playing a double game pretending to be democrats while plotting revolution. The war as their rhetoric announced was a battle of not of communism against the forces of reaction but of “democracy” against fascism. Nevertheless, the Spanish Civil War in many fundamental respects was a proxy war, a war of the raging ideologies of Europe with Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin backing their respective clients.
Hitler, however, was never much impressed with Franco whom he regarded as a provincial rube, a chatterbox with the “manners of a sergeant major” and whom he later demeaned as the “Latin charlatan”. (Stanley Payne, Franco and Hitler: Spain, Germany and World War II, 99). Nor was Hitler able to entice Franco to enter WWII on the Axis side even after helping him defeat the Republicans. At their meeting at the Hendaye train station near the French-Spanish border in October 1940 to Hitler’s great irritation and frustration the Spanish caudillo rejected Hitler’s entreaties and bored him with a three hour rambling monologue. Hitler was reported to have said that he would “rather have three or four teeth pulled than sit through another conversation with Franco.” (Payne, Franco and Hitler, 91)
Stalin eventually abandoned the Republicans and to the disillusionment of many communists world-wide pursued rapprochement with Hitler, concluding the infamous, WWII-initiating “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact” just four months after the end of the Spanish Civil War. During the 1939-1941 Nazi-Soviet-pact Stalin’s NKVD was handing over Jewish Communists to Hitler. Stalin too had waged his own separate war in Spain, not against the fascist rebels, but against any Republicans or supporters of the Spanish regime whom he regarded as enemies of the USSR. His NKVD agents purged the ranks of the Spanish Left of Trotskyists and other “crypto-fascists” with their own show trials, torture and summary executions.
Looking at the Spanish Civil War as a proxy war with Hitler and Stalin as the principals, not as a clash of abstractions – democracy against fascism – but of a struggle between an increasingly Stalin- and communist-dominated Spanish Left and a reactionary Caudillo backed by Hitler and Mussolini, then the rendering of the conflict as a Marxist morality play does not seem quite so compelling.
Consider and compare, also, where Stalin and Hitler both were in their respective career-trajectories of mass-murder at that critical point in time, 1936, the year the Spanish Civil War began. By 1936 Stalin had completed a five-year plan in the USSR with a hard turn to the left beginning in 1928 and a propaganda assault by his personally manipulated Communist International (Comintern) on “social fascists”, the Social Democrats and Socialist parties in Europe whom Stalin classified as enemies on the Left since they played by the parliamentary rules in the constitutional democracies he desired to overthrow. German socialists in the early 1930s found themselves under assault both from Hitler’s Brown Shirts and the KDP, the German communists, following Comintern directives. “Fascist” was the most flexible label in Stalin’s political lexicon, shorthand for his enemy du jour. The boundaries of fascism shifted with the vagaries of the Soviet Union’s own geo-political positioning and strategic priorities. Many of Stalin’s “Old Bolshevik” colleagues from October Revolution days, Trotsky being the most notable, were by the mid-1930s “unmasked” as “fascist hirelings and collaborators”. The “social fascists” during the 1930s after 1936 suddenly became Stalin’s allies as he then concluded that their support was more valuable to him than their ideological heterodoxy. As many of the Republicans in Spain to their sorrow learned, being Stalin’s friend could be worse than being his enemy.
During the early 1930s Stalin had also planned and executed a brutal, coerced collectivization of his own peasantry. His cadres were sent en masse to forcibly extract grain from the farmers in Ukraine and destroy the “Kulaks”, farmers who were “rich”. Stalin was desperate for hard currency in order to capitalize Soviet industries through grain sales on the international markets. The result was mass-starvation, a terror-famine, as Robert Conquest called it, which killed between three to five million Ukrainians including women and children. Country roadsides were littered with wasted corpses while the communist-guarded granaries were filled to capacity and readied for export. The Ukrainians remember this holocaust as Holodomor. By 1936 Stalin had also commenced his purge of the CPSU, replete with elaborate Moscow show trials and launched a three year reign of terror that killed hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens including many lifelong, loyal communists.
By 1936 Hitler had consolidated his dictatorship, purged Ernst Röhm and the SA in the Night of the Long Knives and was readying his dark and menacing forces for the conquest of Europe. Unlike Stalin, at his point Hitler’s devastation and mass murder was ahead of him.
With this kind of comparison of the principals the Spanish Civil War, just how to judge the culpability and innocence of their respective clients, who were competing against each other to expand the world in the images held by their patrons and mentors becomes a daunting and complicated task. In attempting to understand why this war continues it might be better to proceed by stating what would be mutually agreed upon historical judgments rather than seeking to establish an ideologically-based interpretation of exoneration and condemnation. Thus:
1. Both sides in the war committed atrocities;
2. Franco was an ungenerous victor, exacted a brutal retribution and presided over long and repressive dictatorship;
3. Franco’s dictatorship transitioned legally and peacefully to a constitutional democracy in marked contrast to the absence of any communist dictatorship anywhere making a peaceful, legal transition, with the sole exception of Gorbachev’s;
4. The bulwark of military and political resistance to the Nationalist rebels came from Spanish communists with the advice and support of Stalin’s Soviet advisors;
5. Given the strength and domination of communists in the republican government during the civil war, the victory of the Republican government forces over Franco would not have produced a constitutional democracy but rather a communist dictatorship;
6. Given the 20th-century history of communist revolution and rule – the Soviet Union and its post-WWII vassal states, the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of North Korea, Castro’s Cuba, Pol Pot’s Cambodia – one can reasonable conjecture that the people of a communist Spain would have endured the persecution, purges, forced collectivization and economic privation similar to what the peoples of these countries did.
Points one and two, I believe, would not be contested by anyone. Elements of points three and four might be resisted but the points can be persuasively argued. Point number five is, of course, counter-factual. Given, however, the fractious history of Spain that followed the abdication of Alfonso XIII and the commencement of the 2nd Republic in 1931 with the country’s archaic social structure, attendant political extremism, violence and regional hostilities and inability to reform, it is difficult to envision any outcome to the civil war that would not have culminated in some kind dictatorship and awful retribution. Moreover, Spain in need of support and outside assistance from strong and stable democratic governments was attempting the modernizing of its social and political institutions within a Europe whose countries were increasingly falling under the domination of authoritarian and totalitarian governments.
Point number six is conjectural and of course it is impossible to know what a victorious Republican government, large elements of which were made up of anarchists, communists, and socialists, would have done to the opposition and what wreckage in lives and property would have come from the “dismantlement” they were planning for the old order they so much loathed. What would have been the fate of Spanish Catholics? There were still a lot of them. The spring and summer months of 1936 were not a good omen. Also, the history of revolutions in the twentieth century, the three most notable being the Russian, Chinese and Cuban, strongly suggests that a Socialist Republic of Spain would have come to resemble these three with their cult-of-personality dictatorships that murdered, enslaved, repressed and impoverished large numbers of their own citizens.
Perhaps the initial path to an armistice for the Spanish Civil War would be to relinquish the deeply moralized narrative of the conflict as “good versus evil” and attempt to contemplate it as a piece of the larger picture of mid-Twentieth Century Europe’s tragic immersion in cauldron of totalitarian ideologies. The war unleashed the fanatics, the ideologues and the haters and the Spanish people were their victims, caught in a vice the jaws of which were savage reaction one the one side and communist treachery and tyranny on the other.