Review: ‘Storming heaven’

Anthony Beevor is a very popular author, shown by the huge sales of his previous books, Stalingrad and Berlin, because unlike many other capitalist historians he is largely objective in describing events.

On the 70th anniversary of its outbreak, Peter Taaffe reviews Battle for Spain – The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 by Anthony Beevor (Weidenfeld and Nicolson £25).

’Storming heaven’

This book is in a similar vein – Beevor confirms much of the analysis made by genuine Marxism of the Spanish revolution, almost despite himself.

There are occasional lapses when he seeks to generalise, which betray his class standpoint. One is his description of the Asturian commune of 1934, when the miners, supported by the socialist trade union, the UGT, and the Largo Caballero wing of the Socialist Party (PSOE) rose in a revolutionary general strike.

This was brutally suppressed by Franco, amongst others, then a ’republican’ general. Beevor maintains that the working class should not have started this strike "without parliamentary support", which he claims was "a serious error for it played into the government’s hands".

This schoolmasterly ’tut-tutting’, at some historical distance, is ridiculous. What was involved in 1934 was not parliamentary etiquette but the very fate of the Spanish working class. The Spanish workers had witnessed Hitler coming to power a year earlier and were determined to prevent a similar ’peaceful’ fascist seizure of power in Spain.


The entry into the government of three representatives from the right-wing Catholic organisation, CEDA, was the signal for an uprising. The Asturian commune was a ’dress rehearsal’ for the tumultuous events of 1936, as was the 1905 revolution in Russia for the successful revolution in 1917. These events cannot be taken in isolation but were part of the Spanish revolution of 1931-37, the real subject of Beevor’s book rather than just the ’civil war’ itself.

Between the election of the Popular Front government in February 1936 and Franco’s coup, according to Beevor, "altogether 133 general strikes and 216 local strikes had been called". This indicates the temper of the Spanish masses at this stage. But they came up against the opposition not just of the landlords and the capitalists – who seriously prepared for a fascist uprising – but also of the Popular Front government.

Beevor naively declares: "The ultimate paradox of the liberal republic represented by its government was that it did not dare defend itself from its own army by giving weapons to the workers who had elected it." This was not a "paradox", but logical from a capitalist point of view.

Capitalist politicians recognise that, in the defence of all their property – the factories, workplaces and their personal wealth – they ultimately need the force of the state machine to suppress the demands of the working class. This is particularly the case in periods of high social tension.

One carpenter quoted by Beevor hit the nail on the head when he simply states: "The Republican authorities were not prepared to give us arms because they were more afraid of the working class than they were of the army."

While the government negotiated with the conspirators, the masses clamoured for arms. Where they listened to their leaders they were crushed.

However, it was the immortal Barcelona proletariat that saved the day when it marched to confront the fascist officer-led army at their barracks on 19 July. With their bare hands, a few sporting rifles and the legs of chairs and tables, they smashed the fascists and within a few days the whole of Catalonia was controlled by the working class. Four-fifths of Spain was effectively controlled by the workers and peasants but the working class was blocked by the leaders of the mass parties, the Socialist and Communist parties.


The anarchists, who were very strong in Spain (particularly in Barcelona and Catalonia) , also had a completely false analysis of the role of the capitalist state. Their denunciation of ’the state’ in general meant they were unable to distinguish between a workers’ state and a capitalist one.

This led them into collaboration with the capitalist parties in choking the revolution. They entered the government in Catalonia, where they played a crucial role in derailing the revolution. Beevor also shows this.


The Stalinists, on the other hand – particularly in the PCE (Spanish Communist Party – initially smaller than the forces of Trotskyism), played the most pernicious and crucial role in derailing what was a more favourable opportunity for a successful revolution than had existed even in Russia in October 1917 or in Germany in the run-up to Hitler’s seizure of power.

The events in Spain at this time were organically connected to the Stalinist bureaucratic counter-revolution unfolding in Russia. Beevor and Russian Marxist historians have unearthed material (from archives made available since the collapse of Stalinism) on the effects of the Spanish revolution on the internal position of Stalinist Russia and a layer of the bureaucracy.

Antonov-Ovseyenko, the Stalinist ambassador to Spain, was affected profoundly by the revolutionary turn of events. This was a man who in 1917 led the seizure of the Winter Palace and became a supporter of Trotsky, only to capitulate to Stalin later.

He went to Spain as a representative of the Stalinist regime but nevertheless was touched by the events. He sent back reports to Russia urging Stalin to support the revolutionary upheavals, even those of the anarchists in Catalonia in 1936. This was to earn him a recall and subsequent execution. Many other Russians who were in Spain and who loyally served the Stalinist apparatus suffered a similar fate when they went back.

In fact, the purge trials in the USSR were, as Trotsky pointed out, a "one-sided civil war" to prevent the revolutionary contagion unleashed by the Spanish revolution affecting Russia and leading to the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

High point

The May events of 1937 in particular marked a high point in the Spanish revolution. A unique situation existed in the areas controlled by the Republicans following Franco’s coup. To a man and woman, the capitalists and landlords had fled to the side of the nationalists under Franco. What remained in Republican areas was the ’shadow’ of the capitalists – remnants of the shattered capitalist state machine.

However, an alliance of right-wing Republicans and the Stalinists allowed this shadow to take on substance. In all revolutions we see situations when the masses, having thought they had dealt a death blow to capitalism, then realise that their gains are gradually being taken from their hands and come out in a spontaneous attempt to complete the revolution. This happened in July 1917 in the Russian revolution and also in January 1919 in Germany.

The Stalinists’ argument was, in effect, ’first victory over Franco-fascists, then revolution’. This infamous theory of ’stages’ was fatal in the Spanish Revolution. Trotsky pointed out that the masses must be aware that they are fighting for their own social liberation in order to be victorious in the military struggle. One of the weaknesses of Beevor’s book is that he overemphasises the military aspects without seeing that these are subordinate to the social factors, particularly the consciousness of the workers and peasants.


In Barcelona in May 1937, when the government tried to take over the telephone exchange (Telefonica), workers poured into the anarchist FAI-CNT and POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity) headquarters, began to arm themselves and build barricades. Very quickly, the whole of Barcelona was in their hands. Beevor writes: "The anarchists had an overwhelming numerical majority, holding almost 90% of Barcelona and its suburbs, as well as the heavy guns of Montjuich."

But he then adds: "These overwhelming advantages were not used because the CNT-FAI knew that further fighting would lead to a full civil war within the civil war, in which they would be cast as traitors, even if the nationalists were unable to take advantage of the situation."

Yet a "civil war within the civil war" was already taking place through the onslaught of the counter-revolution against the gains of the working class. Such processes unfold in all revolutions, which see shifts to the left leading to attempts at counter-revolution and to a further movement forward of the revolution.

This was a classic case where a small but determined revolutionary party like the POUM could have won over the masses. But, instead of openly campaigning for a militant, conscious policy of resistance and for the completion of the revolution, the POUM leaders went for diplomacy behind the scenes with the CNT leaders. This gave the initiative to the counter-revolution, which denounced the POUM and the anarchist organisation, Friends of Durruti, as ’agents provocateurs’.

Cheered on and organised by the Stalinists, the counter-revolution crushed the movement in Barcelona and effectively liquidated the Spanish revolution. All the horrors of Stalinist barbarity were now unleashed in the secret prisons, the use of torture, the assassination of the POUM leaders Nin and Andrade, and the similar deaths of anarchists and other workers which Beevor describes.

Although Beevor takes another 150 pages describing the events after May 1937, the Barcelona events represented the high point of the revolution. The ’civil war’ then took on a purely military character. Accordingly, the masses became increasingly indifferent to its outcome.


In fact, the civil war ended with dictatorships in both parts of Spain, as Colonel Casado, in conjunction with Miaja, a so-called ’Republican’ general, seized power from the ’democratic’ Republicans. They then opened up peace negotiations with Franco leading to the collapse of Republican areas. The terrible repression and suffering of the masses under the heel of Franco-fascism, as well as the republican exiles in France and elsewhere, is described in harrowing detail.

Beevor’s book does not deal with ’dead’ history. Although Spanish society today seems far removed from the 1930s, the colossal class conflicts which led to the civil war can and will recur. Spain today faces huge economic problems which the bosses will seek to place on the backs of the working class, and the latter will resist as did their forebears in 1936. The struggle may take on a different form but if the working class does not absorb the lessons of these events similar tragedies can take place again.

This book is well worth reading for an overall picture of the momentous events in Spain. It will be even more appreciated, its weaknesses better understood, if those who tackle this book would also read Trotsky’s marvellous writings on Spain, as well as the great Marxist-Trotskyist analysis provided by Felix Morrow in his Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, and the Militant pamphlet, The Spanish Revolution 1931-37.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales.

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July 2006