No more vivid way could have been found to bring the three years of the great civil war back to life; Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain is so lifelike as to be almost eerie.footnote1 It is a chorus of discordant voices echoing out of the past; a carefully arranged selection from nearly three million words recorded during interviews with more than three hundred men and women who were separated by fluctuating battle-lines but all caught in the hurricane of 1936. It is concerned with five main areas, and with the rear more than the front, and with individuals. Individual experiences as the writer says never add up to the total collective experience (p. 30). Subjective and objective realities, always some distance apart, were very far removed in Spain, with its jumble of epochs and cultures; what men thought and felt might have much or little connection with any fact of life, and found expression in ideas or attitudes often contradictory, sometimes to outsiders incomprehensible. Fraser rightly insists that oral history can bring to light facts as well as impressions; and he stresses the importance of archival work for supplementing or correcting such information.

Yet in another light its chief value may be its ability, in a higher degree than any other approach can claim, to bring together, as Fraser’s book does supremely well, the fragmentary, disconnected experiences and sensations of a multitude of individuals, especially such as have lived through a cataclysmic time whose collective orbit transcends and eludes them all. It is with the collective reality of the whole that systematic history-writing must concern itself, seeking to trace the movement of events in terms of institutions, parties, nations, and their ramifying accompaniments. All these entities are more or less artificial, abstractions from the tangible stuff of human life, much like ‘identikit’ images; the beings composing them are never fully congruent with them, and in most of their daily and hourly consciousness may be far distant from them. In the processes scrutinized by the regular historian nothing is accidental, but much is unforeseeable: only social action and struggle provide the crucible, or computer, in which all material forces and social energies are evaluated and their outcome determined. We are always compelled, as Engels was, to recognize that this outcome never coincides with the desire of any of the participants. To turn back from ‘the roaring loom of Time’ to the thoughts and feelings of obscure individuals is always to meet with fresh surprises, and with a salutory reminder of the terms on which men and fate stand.

It really was a civil war, these voices make clear, a truth obscured at the time by the high proportion of Moors, Legionaries, Germans, and Italians on the rebel side. The symbolizing of the two sides as a pair of young sisters, in a Spanish film a few years ago, was in its way fitting. In civil wars, as in family disputes, accumulated tensions and grudges explode, shedding lurid light on the nature of the national State and of man’s social being. Progressives abroad, and a good part of the Left in Spain itself, could not digest the notion of so many ordinary Spaniards fighting, or at least cheering, for a generals’ revolt whose triumph could do no good to anyone but the reactionary vested interests, so long Spain’s curse. It was quite evident then, and is evident now, that in terms of historical causes and consequences the issue was one of white and black, or as nearly so as any great issue can ever be: the Republic was right, its enemies were wrong. But watchers abroad looking on at the arena, from Left as well as Right, gravely oversimplified the combatants’ motives. Discrepancies between the whole and its parts, the cause and its adherents, have been visible in all conflicts, but seldom so prominently as in Spain. And, as often, on the good side individuals were not seldom inferior to their cause, on the bad side superior to it.

Marxists at the time, and for the most part ever since, underrated the extent of popular support for Franco—in some regions only, but no faction had a nation-wide base—because, preoccupied by change, progress, revolution, they have always paid too little attention to the much more prevalent currents of history making for inertia and conservatism, with religion in the lead. Revolutions have been minutely studied; civil wars, as a distinct category, neglected. Yet they have been far commoner. They constitute a middle term between revolution and rising, or insurrection. This, the commonest of all forms of revolt, is likely to be a fairly clear-cut challenge, always more or less localized, by one class to another, or to a class State. Revolution belongs to the rare situation where a class force and its ideas are unmistakably strong enough to supplant an older one. By the time this can happen the old ruling class must have grown effete, and unable to defend itself with any tenacity, as was the case in 1789.

A civil war does not exhibit such a straightforward challenge, and its lines of division are not identical with those of class. In spite of its magnitude we do not think of the Peasant War of 1525 in Germany as a civil war (though perhaps we ought to, since there were many besides peasants among the insurgents). At the outset of a civil war there is not yet a definite leading force and plan, on the more progressive side especially; a programme only emerges in the course of the contest. In 1789 the materials were ready from the start, though the design had to be modified considerably in the years following to meet the bourgeoisie’s requirements. England’s was the classic case of civil war, starting with much ambiguity of purposes on both sides, and not simply (not indeed in any clearly recognizable fashion) arraying class against class, but splitting the dominant landowning class as well as the nation as a whole. This class might be said to have arrived at a parting of ways, a choice of directions, and to have been falling out over which to take; it could not decide by cool debate and consensus because decision was being forced on it, and its social and ideological divergences were being intensified, by mass pressures from below. This cleavage could then lead on, though still chaotically, towards a revolutionary solution.

Civil war was a rarity in nineteenth-century Europe: Spain went through it repeatedly, to say nothing of coups and counter-coups, and such a record, like terrorism in Ireland, hardens into a tradition, a habit, which makes further repetitions likelier. Spain after three centuries of imposed union was less than most ‘nation-states’ an organic unity. Absolutism, foreign conquest and empire had advanced the State prematurely, enabling it to forge a nation dependent to an immoderate degree on monarchist and Catholic ideology. When the old monarchy crumbled at last, under the impact of Napoleonic occupation and the loss of America, the façade of unity crumbled with it. Spain was too weak and solitary to revive it by fighting foreign wars, as stronger countries were learning to do; there was only the fiasco of an attack on Morocco in 1860 and the catastrophe of the American attack on Spain in 1898. Chronic disharmonies beset Spain, but there was no social force capable of taking command and leading in a new direction. Proneness to civil strife was the correlate of inability to make the drastic break with the past that was needed. Some of its accompanying brutality, frightful on each side in the first Carlist war of the 1830s, can be ascribed to lingering infections both of imperialism and of religious bigotry.

Shuffling, hesitant, narrowly selfish, Liberalism could restore only a shell of national unity, nearly as arbitrarily and superficially as the monarchy before it, with an army of unwilling peasant conscripts for bludgeon. Its reactionary opponents were still busy, but destitute of practical ideas for a modern age; they too relied on others to do their fighting, Basque and Catalan peasants whose own wants were quite alien from those of the landlords learning, with the aid of the Church, to manipulate them. In the 20th century reaction acquired a more bizarre tool in the African cannon-fodder made available by the acquisition of a new colony in a corner of Morocco.