Son of a poor Madrid washerwoman whose husband had died, Arturo Barea was born in 1897 in Madrid. He was brought up by a relatively well-to-do uncle and a bigoted catholic aunt. A scholarship took him to a catholic school for the rich in Madrid, while both sides of his family had peasant relatives living in Castile whom he visited on his holidays. One group lived in the poor village of Brunete, later to become famous as a battlefield in the civil war; the other in a more prosperous wine-growing village where his grandmother, an outspoken atheist, was the dominant member. In Madrid, the boy was the washerwoman’s son living on the charity of relatives; in the villages he was the sailor-suited, rich little Madrileño. Split between irreconcilable alternatives, his life was that of a ‘bastard’ in the Sartrean sense. The courage of the boy was not to give in to the easier of the options, never to yield to the temptation to deny his roots in the working class; but at the same time always to be able to view the class from which he sprang with a certain objectivity. It was this strength that allowed him to write one of the few masterpieces of contemporary Spain.
The Forging of a Rebel, published in English in the 1940s and now republished in one volume, is a trilogy of selective autobiographical novels.footnote1 Barea set down his objectives and adhered to them rigorously. ‘In taking and exploring my past self as a member of the Spanish generation which was the core of the Civil War, I hoped to expose some of the roots of that war. I wanted to describe the shocks which had scarred my mind, because I am convinced that these shocks, in different individual forms but from the same collective causes, scarred and shaped the minds of other Spaniards too.’
The first of the novels, The Forge, describes his childhood, the second, The Track, his experiences as a sergeant in the Spanish army waging colonial war in Morocco in the 1920s. Both are works of great literary merit and acute observation of pre Civil War Spain. Poverty/wealth, town/country, religion/atheism are the major polarities of his youth which ends with him rebelling against a promising priest-formed school career and becoming a bank clerk. Then he rebelled again, under the extreme exploitation of Spanish capitalism and joined the socialistled ugt, one of the first white-collar workers to do so.
In Morocco he found that imperialism was but the other face of capitalist exploitation at home: the working class paid the bill in both cases. Though not overtly a supporter of the Moroccans, his experience of a corrupt Spanish officer class exploiting every possible means—
The third novel, The Clash, describes the years up to and during the Civil War. Barea, meantime, had become a successful businessman who could afford to lead the life of a bourgeois in Madrid. Here, among his business associates, he saw the rise of fascism; but he never lost faith in the working class. In a small village where he stayed at weekends he helped organize the labourers and small peasants to win the Popular Front elections against extreme pressure from the local cacique and landlords. When the victory was won nothing changed; the cacique still prevented the landlords from employing the men. ‘It appeared as though the voice of the people had not been heard.’
What was the voice of the people saying? Barea listens to communists, anarchists, socialists expounding their positions. But it is to an old and and illiterate worker that he gives his sympathy. ‘“And now I tell you—shut up about Bakunin and Marx. uhp! Do you know what that stands for? Union of Brother Workers.”’ This was the slogan under which communists, anarchists and socialists fought together in the Asturian uprising of 1934. As Claudin has recently written (nlr 74), ‘the creation of a great revolutionary party was an exceptionally strong possibility between 1934 and 1936, but its basis in Marxism was an open, problematic question.’ Barea echoes this: ‘Why was it that the men in the street, the common people, the workers, the farm labourers and the miners were always ready to get together—and not their leaders?’
The finest pages of The Clash describe the population of Madrid rising to make the city their own, to defend themselves against the military, to make the revolution. Barea was at the Casa del Pueblo when the masses began roaring for arms; he was with them again—unarmed like the majority—when they stormed the Montaña barracks where the insurgent military held out. And he was still there when, with Franco’s troops at the gates, the government fled Madrid in November, 1936. Though refusing to bear arms, he participated in that second surge of popular initiative to hold the invaders from the gates. On his own he kept the Foreign Ministry open, helped form a workers committee to take it over, continued to run the press censorship and later broadcast from the besieged city as the ‘Voice of Madrid’.