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Recommended Reading: The Spanish Civil War

Posted on September 29th, 2008 in Recommended Reading, Reviews

Editor’s Introduction: The Spanish Civil War (1936–1936) was a pivotal moment in the history of anarchism and the twentieth century as a whole. It is also the subject of literally tens of thousands of studies, which can make it very difficult for someone interested in reading about the topic to know where to begin.

Chris EalhamWe asked Chris Ealham for some help. He is the author of Class, Culture and Conflict in Barcelona, 1898-1937 among many other works on revolutionary Spain. Specifically, we asked him to list some of the best books in English on Spain’s Civil War, especially works that touch on concerns of special interest to anarchists.

This is what he told us:

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Up to the present, Spain is the country where anarchist principles have been most extensively implemented. I refer, of course, to the “short summer of anarchy” at the start of the Spanish civil war in 1936, which saw the biggest experiment in workers’ self-management in world history, a genuine revolution from below spearheaded by grassroots supporters of the anarcho-syndicalist union, the CNT, and the anarchist FAI. The most detailed study of the collectivization process, which is based on many internal sources and eye-witness accounts, is José Peirats’s The CNT in the Spanish Revolution (Hastings: Christie Books, 2001, 2005, 2006; 3 vols.), which charts the rise and ebb of the revolutionary tide.

Spain is also notorious: the CNT-FAI “leadership” effectively turned its back on revolutionary goals in favor of an anti-fascist alliance that saw several prominent anarchists become government ministers. Peirats’s Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution (London: Freedom Press 1990) projects a sharper, more defined critique of this “democratic collaboration,” although the classic, most full-blooded critique is that of Vernon Richards (real name Vero Benvenuto Costantino Recchioni), whose Lessons of the Spanish Revolution (London: Freedom Press, 1983) lambastes the deficient ideological formation of the CNT-FAI leadership.

A more recent analysis of this process is provided by Agustín Guillamón’s The Friends of Durruti Group: 1937-1939 (Edinburgh/San Francisco, CA: AK Press, 1996), which analyzes the emergence of the group that most trenchantly confronted the CNT-FAI leaders. In a clear rejoinder to Richards, Guillamón argues that it was precisely because of certain anarchist principles—specifically the rejection of any armed revolutionary power—that the CNT-FAI hierarchy was incapable of responding to the challenges of the period. Guillamón locates the Friends of Durruti within the crisis of Spanish anarchist thought, against which their efforts to produce a coherent revolutionary theory and practice must be located.

The Friends drew part of their inspiration from Buenaventura Durruti, the inspirational activist and militia leader who most personifies the heroism and sacrifice of Spain’s anarchists. Fortunately we have a remarkable biography by Abel Paz, Durruti in the Spanish Revolution (Oakland, CA./Edinburgh: AK Press, 2006), a work that is also a history of a mass movement and its struggle for social transformation refracted through the life of its Nestor Makhno.

For those who wish to gain a sense of how organized anarchism fitted within the broader conflict of the 1930s, I recommend Ronald Fraser’s monumental oral history, The Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War (London: Pimlico, 1994), one of the masterpieces of civil war history. Based on some 300 interviews with protagonists, including several CNT-FAI militants and grassroots collectivizers, the book is critical of and yet sympathetic to the anarchists. Of special interest is one of the appendices that analyzes the orientation of the anarchist movement in the prelude to civil war.

One of the enduring strengths of Spain’s anarchists was their ability to transmit a culture of everyday resistance to oppression among the most downtrodden sectors of society. A wonderful local study of this process is Jerome Mintz’s The Anarchists of Casas Viejas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), a village that acquired national attention in 1933 following the brutal repression of a short-lived insurrection. Based heavily on interviews with villagers, this work provides a compelling vision of the cultural universe of the landless braceros and how the anarchists among them sought to dignify the lot of one of the most desperate social groups in twentieth century Europe.