A Classic Study Revisited

— Gerd-Rainer Horn

The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain
By Pierre Broué and Émile Témime
Chicago: Haymarket, 2008 reprint edition. $50 paperback.

PIERRE BROUÉ (1926-2005) was one of the few Trotskyist historians who carved out a niche in academia, though this career choice had to overcome many obstacles. Coming of age at a time in France when the historical profession mostly consisted of either conservative anti-communists or historians closely linked to the milieu of the hard-line French Communist Party, Broué, a long-time member of the Lambertiste current within French Trotskyism (until his expulsion in 1989), from early on had to learn to fight on his own.

Eventually settling near Grenoble in the French Alps, Broué was the guiding spirit behind the founding of the leading research publication on the history of international Trotskyism, the Cahiers Léon Trotsky, in 1979. But his long list of publications was by no means limited to the reconstruction of the history of this much-maligned current or his biography of Leon Trotsky himself.

Pierre Broué devoted himself above all to the analysis and description of revolutionary social movements in the first half of the 20th century and the key political currents within this range of activist organizations. A polyglot, Pierre Broué considered languages as tools to unlock the hidden history of emancipatory social movements, and thus he learned new languages in accordance with the evolution of his wide-ranging interests.

Given the centrality of the Bolshevik Revolution in Broué’s understanding of the contemporary world, the many facets of the Soviet experience received probably the most extensive attention of this prolific scholar, though perhaps some of the most remarkable monographs were devoted to other countries and themes.

His 1971 The German Revolution, 1917-1923, translated into English in 2006,(1) a massive and empirically rich tome, should be mentioned here, but also his co-authorship (together with Raymond Vacheron) of a little-known study of Stalinist terror against Left Oppositionists in the French resistance, Meurtres au Maquis.(2)

Pride of place, however, must be reserved for Broué’s very first major monograph, co-authored with Émile Témime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain. This book first appeared in 1961,(3) when interest in the libertarian dimension of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War was limited to the few trace elements of the revolutionary Marxist and syndicalist traditions that had managed to survive the terrible defeats of the 1930s and 1940s. This remarkable monograph saw the light of day a full eight years before Noam Chomsky’s pathbreaking critique of the liberal intelligentsia’s dismissal and neglect of the Spanish anarchist contribution to the arsenal of (social) liberation movements in the modern age, Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship.(4)

In short, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain appeared at a most inauspicious time for the publication of a major monograph on a neglected pivotal moment in 20th-century European history. But the social movements in the latter half of the 1960s and then, above all, the 1970s widened the potential audience for such non-conformist critiques.

Over time, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain saw perhaps more translations and republications than any other of Broué’s many volumes. Haymarket Books’ decision to republish it in 2008 is welcome as the most recent in a long list of recognitions of this modern classic.

Two Authors, Dual Traditions

One extraordinary feature of this volume should be highlighted straightaway. The book consists of two parts, the first half concentrating on domestic politics and society in Republican Spain in Year One of the Spanish Revolution. Part Two takes a detailed look at the foreign policy implications of the Spanish Civil War, foreign intervention in the Civil War, and the evolution of the Nationalist side, ending with Franco’s victory.

But it is not this organizational subdivision of the text which is unusual. The highly innovative feature was the decision of the two authors to join their efforts in the reconstruction of events in Spain, for Pierre Broué and Émile Témime hailed from two rather divergent and, in the context of the Civil War itself, rather conflictual political traditions, which, in their common foreword, the authors described in the following terms:

“(T)hough in spirit we were on the same side of the fence, we willingly parted company, one of us more in sympathy with the progressive Republicans and the moderate Socialists in his concern with organization and efficiency and the world balance of power, and the other with the dissident Communists and revolutionary Socialists.” (14)  The confluence of differing political trajectories, in the case of this pathbreaking study, resulted in an overall product whose quality far surpasses the sum total of its two individual parts.

Émile Témime (1926-2008), the moderate within this team, later on made his name as an historian of Mediterranean migrations and the history of Marseilles. His detailed reconstruction of the international diplomatic dimension to the Civil War, the internal politics of Franco’s side, and the involvement of international powers in the affairs of the Spanish Republic was, to the best of my knowledge, unsurpassed at that time. Témime’s second half of the volume thus added much-needed international grounding to the efforts of the two authors, who were both ten years old at the onset of the Spanish Civil War.

Yet for the readership of ATC, the pages penned by Pierre Broué probably hold even more interest than the 200-plus pages by Témime which, however, remain a more than worthwhile read. In what follows, then, I will limit myself to highlighting certain select features of Broué’s first 300 pages, in the hope that prospective readers will not only purchase but study the entirety of this captivating book.

One more necessary and obvious comment needs to precede the engagement with the book’s central theses. Some 50 years ago many of the most crucial archival holdings had been closed to the two young French investigators.

Most crucially, of course, Spanish archives remained off limits, as Spain was then still in the midst of the NATO-supported Francoist deep freeze. And back in 1961 the team fared little better when attempting to utilize French and British holdings. Soviet archives and the document collections in the Vatican were equally inaccessible to Broué and Témime.

In the intervening half century, this situation has been nearly completely reversed. Most crucially, Spanish holdings became available to researchers soon after the demise of Franco in November 1975. Soviet archives have no longer been hermetically sealed in the wake of Gorbachev’s reforms and the implosion of the Soviet Union. Last but not least, the recent announcement by the Vatican authorities that materials from the pontificate of Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) will now be opened may well remove some of the last major restrictions on the full investigation of the domestic and international circumstances of the Spanish Civil War — although in all these cases there remain frustrating restrictions which still complicate serious research.

A Modern Classic

The attentive reader of this book must thus constantly keep in mind that Broué and Témime faced serious limitations with regard to their source base. No doubt, anyone wishing to delve further into the respective detail will uncover a host of new published research which casts additional light on the Spanish Revolution and the Civil War. It is likewise beyond doubt that a careful comparison between Broué and Témime’s account and that of succeeding generations of scholars will uncover mistakes and flaws in the work of these two pioneering historians.

Yet it should be underscored that what makes, in my view, The Revolution and the Civil War a modern classic is the fact that the broad outlines of their arguments, their interpretive sweep, and the precision of their analytic insights remain, to this day, unsurpassed and fully valid. Even some of Broué’s introductory comments, setting the stage for his detailed exposition of domestic politics in Republican Spain, remain insightful almost 50 years after they were first published:

“It was one of the tragedies of the Spanish Liberals and Republicans that, in spite of the existence of a Basque and a Catalan bourgeoisie, the incompleteness of the Spanish nation and the persistence of autonomist leanings [i.e. for political independence — ed.] had hindered the formation of a genuine Spanish bourgeoisie. The bankers in the Basque provinces and the biggest Catalan businessmen were hand in glove with the oligarchy. All the petty-bourgeois elements, which in the Western countries served as the base for the parties most strongly drawn to the parliamentary system, had turned toward Autonomist movements.” (46)

Combined with an unusually combative working-class Left, these Spanish peculiarities were omens for disaster. And most of the central passages in Pierre Broué’s text are devoted to the analysis and discussion of the contours, contributions and failures of this working-class Left.

What strikes this reader upon re-reading this seminal text is not only the didactic clarity of language employed by both authors, which makes this work easily accessible as elegant introductory texts even today, but the finely nuanced tone of the authors who consistently refrain from simplistic black-and-white depictions of their respective favorite protagonists and the latter’s detested detractors.

The dissident Communist Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM, immortalized in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia), though often quite favorably portrayed by Broué, is never spared from insightful critique where critique is due. On the other hand, the dreaded Stalinists of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) are given credit where credit is due. The PCE’s central role in the defense of Madrid in November 1936 is fully described, an organizational effort much-aided by Soviet assistance and adoption of revolutionary measures at the home front in Madrid, which closely resembled the methods of the revolutionary camp elsewhere.

That the PCE’s recourse to quasi-revolutionary measures in Madrid were calculated and contingent is also underscored, however, and the true nature of its hostility to lasting radical social change shone through even in Madrid. By December 1936, the POUM first experienced bouts of repression and illegality within the Republican camp at the instigation of the PCE.

Yet political parties and organizations, as central as they are in Broué’s account, never take on exclusive pride of place. It is one of the most important insights of this book that it was not so much the political parties of the Left which played the decisive role in the life of the Spanish Second Republic at grassroots level; instead, the author maintains, “the worker’s life gravitated around the casas del pueblo and the labor exchanges, centers of collective life that were veritable strongholds.” (66)

This recognition of the social movement-type character of the Spanish Revolution makes Broué’s contribution to this seminal volume of utmost value and probably explains to a significant degree the continued (relative) popularity of this tome half a century after its first publication.

Revolutionary Self-Organization

With the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution in response to Franco’s only partially successful military uprising on 17 July 1936, this rank-and-file-driven revolutionary impulse manifested itself in ever so many innovative ways.

“In effect, each time that the workers’ organizations allowed themselves to be paralysed by their anxiety to respect Republican legality and each time that their leaders were satisfied with what was said by the officers, the latter prevailed. On the other hand, the Movimiento [fascist] was repulsed whenever the workers had time to arm and whenever they set about the destruction of the Army as such, independently of their leaders’ positions or the attitude of “legitimate” public authorities.” (104)

An extraordinary process of self-organization thus commenced in those parts of Spain where the military uprising had been defeated and where the working-class and peasant revolutionary Left exercised a degree of hegemony. A welter of committees sprang up all over Republican Spain, and Broué clearly portrays the origins and functions of these organizations.

“All had been set up in the heat of action to direct the popular response to the military coup d’état. They had been appointed in an infinite number of ways. In the villages, the factories, and on the work sites, time had sometimes been taken to elect them, at least summarily, at a general meeting. At all events, care had been taken to see that all parties and unions were represented on them, even if they did not exist before the Revolution, because the Committees represented at one and the same time the workers as a whole and the sum total of their organizations....

“All the Committees, whatever their differences in name, origin and composition, had one basic feature in common. All of them, in the days after the uprising, had seized all local power, taking over legislative as well as executive functions, making categorical decisions in their areas, not only about immediate problems, such as the maintenance of law and order and the control of prices, but also about the revolutionary tasks of the moment, the socialization or unionization of industry, the expropriation of the property of the clergy, the “factionists,”or simply the big landowners, the distribution of land or its collective development, the confiscation of bank accounts, the municipalisation of lodgings, the organization of information, written or spoken, education and welfare.” (127-9)

Critical Analysis

This widespread experiment in self-management and self-organization stands at the center of Broué’s analytical gaze. It is perhaps of more than passing interest that more recent historians with an eye for the emancipatory dimension of the Spanish Revolution, such as George Esenwein and Adrian Shubert, have continued to underscore the singularity of this historical process: “When compared to the Russian example [i.e. the Russian Revolution  — GRH], it is patent that in Spain the degree of workers’ control was far more penetrating and of a greater magnitude.”(5)

To be sure, Pierre Broué is a far too conscientious scholar merely to praise the evolution of grassroots sentiments and experiments in the aftermath of 17 July 1936. He is quick to point out some self-limiting and debilitating flaws in the attempts of those committees to construct a fundamentally different (and better!) society.

On a regional level, a significant amount of overlap and conflicting interests between the various committees complicated the running of affairs. Moreover, the explicitly desired decentralization of powers led to certain inefficiencies and negative social consequences; “wages varied considerably from one branch of industry and even from one factory to another.” The author even goes so far as to state: “Collectivisation led to the same inequalities and even to the same absurdities that its supporters had criticized in the capitalist system.” (164)

Perhaps most crucially, these committees, “made up of leaders of organizations, whether appointed or elected,” never did become “elected bodies subject to recall, acting democratically according to the law of the majority;” instead,

“(T)he Committees gradually ceased to be genuine revolutionary bodies, because of their failure to change themselves into a direct expression of the insurgent masses. They became “nominal committees,” in which workers and peasants carried less and less weight as the revolutionary battles and the direct exercise of power in the streets by armed workers faded into the past, and in which, to the contrary, the influence of party and union apparatuses came to play a dominant role.” (189)

Still, if there was hope for the Spanish Revolution, it lay within the self-organization of Spanish activists within these committees, “this blossoming of initiatives [which was] not always happy but almost always generous in their inspiration.” (152)

But time was running out. “It was the war that reduced the revolutionary gains to rubble before they had time to mature and prove themselves in a day-by-day experiment compounded of progress and retreat, of groping and discovery.” (170) “In fighting a war, a single authority is essential. The duality between the power of the Committees and the state was an obstacle to the conduct of the war. In autumn 1936, the only problem was to know which of the two powers, Republican or revolutionary, would prevail.” (188)

The Tragic Dead End

Much of the remainder of Broué’s contribution to the co-authored work portrays in cogent analytical and detailed fashion why the “moderate” side won. In the autumn of 1936 even the forces on the revolutionary Left, above all the anarchists, the left-wing activists within the Socialist trade union (UGT), and the POUM all got caught up in the supposed exigencies of the admittedly difficult conjuncture, acquiescing in and indeed supporting the gradual elimination of the committee structure in favor of strengthening the rival structures of the bourgeois state.

In the following winter and then the spring of 1937, the realization of the dead-end nature of this evolution suddenly began to dawn on growing numbers of the increasingly marginalized radical Left; but by then, it soon turned out, it was too late. The 1937 Barcelona “May Days,” the Communist-led suppression of the Left again immortalized by Orwell in his autobiographical account of his months spent in the ranks of a POUM militia unit, provided the symbolic endpoint of Year One of the Spanish Revolution, which in effect put an end to the Spanish Revolution as such.

The Civil War continued to rage for almost another two years, ably described in Émile Témime’s portion of the joint text, but the most outstanding example of widespread libertarian self-organization in 20th century European (and, probably, world) history had come to an end.


  1. Pierre Broué, The German Revolution, 1917-1923 (London: Merlin, 2006).
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  2. Pierre Broué and Raymond Vacheron, Meurtres au Maquis (Paris: Grasset, 1997).
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  3. Pierre Broué and Émile Témime, La revolution et la guerre d’Espagne (Paris: Minuit, 1961).
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  4. Originally published as part of a larger collection of Chomsky’s writings, American Power and the New Mandarins, it has recently been reissued as a monograph: Noam Chomsky, Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship (New York: New Press, 2003).
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  5. George Esenwein and Adrian Shubert, Spain at War: The Spanish Civil War in Context (London: Longman, 1995), 134.
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ATC 143, November-December 2009