As oral history broadens its field of study, and in particular as it moves into the field of political history, it cannot elude the task, bounden on materialist historiography, of providing a causal knowledge of the processes it is studying. At first sight this may not seem obvious. Oral history, after all, attempts to articulate lived experiences—the experiences, I would say, of those who, historically speaking, are inarticulate. In other words, of ‘ordinary’ people and by that I mean no more than the people whom traditional historiography passes over in silence because they have left no written record or have not even figured in any record—and who are now restored to a place in the history they have contributed to making. As such, it seems as though the main concern is ‘subjective’; and at one level this is true. The lived experience is the primary source and must, I believe, have an indisputable primacy in the finished work. For oral history is a method of researching and writing people’s history—a history which should be returned, through recognizable experiences of it, to the people who made it so that they are not once again excluded from their own history.

Left at this, however, oral history is little more than a chronicle of lived experiences, history refracted through the prism of multiple individual histories—authentic, illustrative but finally one-dimensional. For histories, lamentably, do not constitute history. True, they can reveal an important constituent of history, the climate of feeling, the atmosphere of events which at times of extreme social crisis can become a determining factor in the way people respond to events. But this atmosphere is itself an emanation of social conflicts, reflects those conflicts and yet does not per se explain them in terms other than itself. An explanation requires making intelligible the ‘interaction of material events and the minds of men—located in time and space’.footnote1 The ‘minds of men’ oral enquiry gives us; the ‘material events’, on the other hand, cannot be reconstructed solely from lived experience. Or rather, their significance within the process of historical change is never totally accessible to individual experience at the time. In any present the future remains an indeterminate becoming; once known, it affords the vantage point from which to question the past, to seek out those determinants of change which, arising out of (and from the contradictions in) the dominant mode of production, led to this particular outcome rather than that.footnote2

It may seem that if such intelligibility lies outside the scope of the individual experience of the time it has no place in oral history. This would be mistaken for it would ascribe an ahistoricity to experience in the belief that it could not be conditioned by forces of which it was unaware. To render individual histories intelligible requires situating them within the determinants which have conditioned (and been conditioned) by them. Furthermore, in the constant dialogue between the hypotheses which it involves, the search for causal knowledge serves the oral historian as an important conceptual control for assessing the relevance of the questions asked and the answers given. And nowhere is this control more necessary than in the final selection of evidence, for it is only by creating a dynamic synthesis of the determinants of change and individual experience that histories can be constituted as history, that the past can be made intelligible as a means of understanding and transforming the present.

These cursory remarks must serve as an introduction to and explanation for the following notes on the Spanish Second Republic and the Civil War of 1936–39. A dearth of detailed, analytical studies in the mass of historiography of the period made it imperative in writing an oral history of the period to question that past yet again for the reasons I have outlined above. In particular, to try to situate the shifts of consciousness which took place during the Republic and which in part contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. Many of these observations—some in the form of questions—were suggested by witnesses and almost all of them can be founded scattered throughout Blood of Spain in a manner secondary to the oral testimony. Their reconstruction here is an attempt to set them out in a more coherent and accessible form.

The fact that the military uprising of July 1936 immediately turned into a civil war was a consequence of the balance of class forces prior to the war. This balance of forces had precipitated a ruling-class crisis as far back as 1917. The slow but certain advance of capitalism from the turn of the century—between 1910 and 1930 the industrial proletariat more than doubled in size—was not matched by a modernization of the political system which would ‘contain’ the new social forces. The pseudo-parliamentary democracy of the restoration monarchy of 1875, which effectively excluded peasantry and proletariat from political representation, had shown itself unable to evolve beyond its original limits of democracy for the ruling agrarian-dominated oligarchy alone. The crisis was postponed by the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, backed by the monarchy, from 1923 to 1930 and erupted again on the latter’s fall. The economically dominant classes felt that the old monarchical system could no longer effectively protect their interests and, in disarray, ended up by abandoning the monarchy. The dominated classes, for whom in general the monarchy had lost its legitimacy, felt that the new way ahead—the Republic—was the legitimate political vehicle to fulfill their immediate aspirations.

The advent of the Second Republic in 1931 was thus the expression—and attempted resolution—of this ruling-class crisis. The crisis, however, was so deep that the dominant classes were not fully in control of the new political processes and were frightened that these might totally escape them. Faute de mieux, the old ruling class had to leave the initial resolution of the crisis to the petty-bourgeois left republicans. The latter’s task in essence was to achieve a political reform with the dual complementary objectives of ‘modernizing’ capitalist relations of production and of preventing proletarian revolution (or nationalist secession in Catalonia and the Basque country) which would threaten Spanish capitalism itself. This entailed a political reform which would legitimate the dominant classes’ continued economic domination (and rate of accumulation) while serving to incorporate the proletariat and the nationalist petty bourgeoisies into the system.

The path chosen by the new regime was the inauguration of an advanced bourgeois democracy. At some levels this was achieved; church and state were separated, genuine universal suffrage introduced, a cabinet made responsible to a single-chamber parliament, the education system secularized, divorced legalized, etc. But it was four other reforms that the republican-socialist coalition of the first two years (1931–33) believed vital to the success of modernization: the land, the church, the army and regional autonomy. The reasons for the partial or total failure of these reforms need concern us less than the effects. Agrarian reform frightened the important rural bourgeoisie, but did not in fact take its land—leaving the landless dissatisfied. Its religious policy attacked with unnecessary acerbity an important area of ruling-class ideological dominance—religious education—and made a gift to reaction of a fertile terrain to regroup its scattered forces. Its military reform did not fundamentally affect the military hierarchy. It gave an autonomy statute to Catalonia and failed to do so for the Basque country. Two other important factors must be stressed. First, while political power was in the coalition’s hands, economic power escaped it, even though it pursued the most orthodox financial policies. Secondly, it temporarily incorporated half the organized working class, thanks to the Socialist Party’s collaboration, and effectively placed outside the pale the other, anarcho-syndicalist half which had declared itself in ‘open war’ against the new regime and staged three insurrections in the space of two years.