The state is slovenly in its dealings with the citizen, permitting him, on occasion, to evade compliance with its laws; or vice versa, the state itself applies the laws fraudulently and makes them a means of deceiving the citizen.Jose Ortega y Gasset
In Spain, the dictatorship of Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera began in September 1923, with a military coup supported by the king. This would prove a temporary solution to an intractable problem. Primo de Rivera governed under the motto “Country, Religion, Monarchy.” To appease the left, he taxed the rich to pay for public works. When the rich complained, he tried to borrow money from banks. When currency inflation resulted, the army refused to support him. In January 1930 Primo de Rivera left Spain a broken man.
Conservatives looked on helplessly as King Alfonso XIII fled the country. The left established Spain’s Second Republic. Unlike America’s Founding Fathers, Spain’s leaders did not envision a republic along classical Roman lines. While the center left talked “reform,” the far left talked “revolution.” Having lost their bearings and their sense of history, the leftist parties partook in what Jose Ortega y Gasset called “The Revolt of the Masses.” This revolt was based on one fact “of utmost importance in the public life of Europe….” That fact was “the accession of the masses to complete social power.” [Revolt of the Masses, p. 11] The “masses,” of course, were the common people. Ortega pointed out that the masses of the twentieth century were too simple to maintain a civilization based on complex classical traditions. He warned that politics was bound to become the province of low-quality individuals. The management of the country, he lamented, would fall into the hands of people who were “pseudo-intellectual, unqualified, unqualifiable, and, by their very mental texture, disqualified.” [Revolt of the Masses, p. 16] It didn’t matter if these persons were from the nobility or the working class. Every class possesses persons of excellence, he said; only now, the excellent would be elbowed aside by people having no excellence whatsoever.
“I cannot disguise my grave doubt that there exists,” said Ortega, “on this day, any group capable of achieving the reform of the state, or … the university.” It was remarkably prescient for Ortega to associate the state with the university in this matter, as both institutions were then sowing the seeds of socialist revolution (under the guise of “reform”). Yet, as Ortega suggested, no group within the state or university was likely to achieve anything positive. In fact, they were sowing the wind only to reap the whirlwind of civil war in a few years’ time.
If the Spanish socialists and leftists believed they were building a utopia, they were bound for disappointment (just as the American left is bound for disappointment today). Oh yes, the Spanish socialists had the will to attempt their own “great reset.” But Ortega warned them: Will is nothing. It is mere obstinacy. As for the left’s passionate belief in the future of man, Ortega warned them yet again: Passion is nothing, penetrating intelligence is everything. With the exception of Lenin and his disciples, intellectual depth is what the left has always lacked. There is a saying, among the bourgeoisie, that “a fool and his money are soon parted”; the Leninists might say, in their turn, that “a Menshevik and his political power are [also] soon parted.” (Lenin asked, regarding the Menshevik program of 1907, “Could you possibly imagine anything more diffuse, vague and empty?”)
In 1930, with everything readied for a leftist republic in Spain, we find nothing but diffuse, vague and empty ideas. The root problem behind all this, said Ortega, was slovenliness. According to Ortega, slovenliness “penetrates our whole national life from top to bottom, directing … its actions.” The slovenliness of the left grew out of the complacency of the urban bourgeoisie, nurtured in the cocoon of “Country, Religion, Monarchy.” The agents of the conservative dictatorship, he hinted, were also slovenly – nonentities who did not understand the very slogan they were obligated to support. The vulgar and banal of the left could not be placated by their mirror image on the right; for it turns out that timeserving mediocrities are no bulwark against ambitious mediocrities.
Ortega told the Federation of University Students, “You have seen for yourselves a petulant effort to reform the country, on the part of a group of people who had not given a moment’s thought to the question of first providing themselves with the minimum of necessary equipment. Such has been the Dictatorship. All it has achieved … has been to carry our national slovenliness to the point of madness.”
Ortega further said, in connection with the dictatorship’s “fraudulent” application of the law, that “this conduct of the government is a crime, an intolerable abuse, a betrayal of public trust.” He said that it was so stupid “that one feels ashamed to call it a crime.” Actual violent crime, he explained, is something respectable by comparison, because it engenders an immediate reaction. And oh, how wrong he was; for little did Ortega know, the left was about to initiate a violent string of crimes with almost no immediate reaction from the right.
The Second Republic began on 14 April 1931. Spanish historian Javier Tusell has described it as an “undemocratic democracy.” From the outset, leftist mobs were unleashed. In one instance more than 100 buildings were burned in Madrid – including Churches. The army restored order, but the government was not interested in punishing insurrectionists from the left. It sometimes happened that the government would round up “right-wing extremists” in the wake of left-wing violence.
Conservatives reacted by forming the Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rightists (CEDA); also known as the Catholic party, which became the country’s largest political party. As historian Stanley Payne noted, conservatives hadn’t needed a political organization under Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship; but now they were living under a hostile regime, persecuted and subjected to lawless violence. Their rights were restricted by the government, which regarded them as second-class citizens. To give only one indication of the violence unleashed against conservatives by the Spanish left, Activists of the Anarchist Federation committed twenty-three political murders in the first weeks of the Second Republic.
On the far right there were also stirrings; but the Falange Espanola – a fascist organization – did not amount to much. In fact, the Catholic party was accused of being fascist (which it was not). When conservatives won the 1933 Spanish general election, the left worked to cancel the result by changing the rules ex post facto. According to Payne, “the left contended that the Catholic party could not be permitted to win elections – because the CEDA proposed fundamental changes in the Republican system.”
Leftist leaders, determined to suppress the Catholics, asked President Zamora to cancel the conservative electoral victory. Zamora’s refusal resulted in a leftist insurrection which began in December of 1933. Nearly 100 people were killed. Large bombs were detonated in Barcelona. Riots raged in eight cities; trains were derailed, a bridge was destroyed, army outposts mutinied. Zamora allowed a center-right government to form, but decided to exclude the Catholics – even though they had won the most votes of any party.
This new center-right government was unacceptable to the left. A socialist insurrection therefore took place in 1934. The Spanish left defended this insurrection as “defensive.” According to historian Stanley Payne, the socialist insurrection of 1934 was a carefully planned aggression that had been “in gestation for more than a year and tactically in preparation for nine months.” Meanwhile, the left Republicans under Manuel Azaña importuned President Zamora to appoint a minority government, barring the majority right parties from power altogether. Using the threat of a socialist-supported “general strike,” which was certain to involve widespread violence, Azaña blustered, “Before the Republic is converted into a fascist or monarchist hangman … we prefer any other catastrophe, even if we are defeated.”
President Zamora refused to make Azaña prime minister and, however briefly, a conservative majority ruled Spain – which finally included three Catholic party ministers. This was too much for the Socialist Party which began another insurrection on 4 October 1934. Likening the Catholics to Hitler and Mussolini, the Socialists justified arson, looting and rioting. Veteran socialist politician Julian Besteiro ironically noted, Spain’s Socialist Party “had more characteristics of a fascist organization than did the CEDA [Catholic party].”
The violent October 1934 insurrection included an abortive revolt of the Catalan government in Barcelona, revolution in fifteen of Spain’s fifty provinces, the murder of nearly 100 clergymen, widespread destruction and arson, the looting of banks, with 1,500 people killed and 15,000 arrested. Please note: The Spanish conservative government, like Trump’s government in the summer of 2020, was surprisingly lenient toward the insurrectionists. The Socialist Party, despite its sedition, was never outlawed. Only a few harsh sentences were carried out.
The country limped along for almost another year until the government broke down in September 1935 after two petty financial scandals. President Zamora then appointed a personal crony as prime minister, arguing that the majority conservatives were “too far to the right.” New elections were called for February 1936. Spain was now completely polarized as the left continued to ramp up its violence. The path was now open for socialist revolution. The conservatives and Catholics had shown themselves weak in the face of leftist violence while President Zamora ignored the right’s majority standing.
There was a great deal at stake in the 1936 February election. The Socialist Party declared their readiness for civil war if the left lost the vote. At the same time, the left promised to purge the government of all conservative employees to create an “all left regime.” The left also wanted full amnesty for all those jailed during the October 1934 insurrection. They talked of punishment, as well, for police and security officials who had put down the insurrection.
Tensions were high when the voting began on 16 February 1936. Leftist mobs took to the streets and interfered with the balloting. In some districts voting was stopped. In other areas ballots were destroyed. Rightist poll-watchers were bullied, voting officials resigned in disgust. Repeat voting sessions were carried out and additional votes were harvested for the left. Provincial governors resigned; yet the prime minister would not declare martial law. The Chief of the Army General Staff, Francisco Franco, urged the minister of war and the commander of the civil guard to intervene, but they refused. Then, the entire government resigned. A new Republican left minority government took power. Electoral commissions annulled the elections in Cuenca and Granada – where the right had won. Elsewhere seats were simply assigned to the left’s Popular Front. The Spanish General Election of 1936 was a sham.
Harking back to Ortega’s 1930 diagnosis, this is how Spain’s “slovenliness” played out. The left was lawless. The government was lawless. Only the Catholics and conservatives remained true to civil order and right behavior. But these were the very people targeted for suppression. Civil war was on everyone’s lips. Previously moderate Catholic youth contemplated armed resistance. The army’s loyalty was examined by the government. All the generals in Spain were considered reliable except one. General Franco was removed from his senior position and sent to command the Canary Islands. On leaving Spain Franco began studying English, joking to his family that language study would give him something to do in jail.
Then a shockingly brutal murder took place. Calvo Sotelo, a leading right-wing politician, was kidnapped and murdered by the bodyguard of Socialist party leader Indalecio Prieto. Worse yet, the government took no effective action against the killers. The murder had an electrifying effect on the conservatives. As historian Stanley Payne explained, “It now seemed more dangerous not to rebel than to rebel.” [P. 70]
On 18 July 1936 a military insurrection began. Spain was engulfed in a bloody civil war. As Payne recounts, “the left had about half the army, two-thirds of the navy, the bulk of the air force, and nearly two-thirds of the security forces.” At first the odds favored the left. In fact, the revolt should have been smashed as the government rapidly mobilized “the people” for war. The right was saved by two things: (1) Steadfastness in combat and (2) the rapacity of the left. Instead of fighting, most leftist formations indulged in what Payne described as “an orgy of arrests, attacks on churches, murders en masse, and arson and pillage in general.” [P. 79]
An impromptu and brutal socialist revolution began in the wake of the military uprising. As Payne noted, “the revolution helped save the [right wing] insurgent cause because its fixation on atrocity and pillage massively diverted energy from the military conflict, while the horrors of violent revolution on the march swung the sympathies of most of the middle and lower-middle classes, and nearly all of Catholic society, to the side of the insurgents, giving them mass support….” [P. 79]
The Spanish Civil War raged for almost three years, ending on 1 April 1939. A leftist coalition of anarchists, communists and syndicalists was defeated by a right-wing coalition of nationalists, monarchists, conservatives and Falangists led by Gen. Francisco Franco. Between 500,000 and a million people were killed out of a population of 23.8 million.
In terms of what this means today, the runup to the Spanish Civil War offers insights into the dynamics of left/right polarization. We see by what means the left, at first, gained the upper hand. We see how the right was initially helpless because of its respect for law and order. We see the gradual acceleration of violence against the right, combined with official injustice and the government’s double standard. We see state tyranny bolstered by anarchy from below. And in the end, we see the inevitable catalyzing event which galvanized the right into open war.
As a final note: Jose Ortega y Gasset – the famous Spanish philosopher quoted above – stayed true to his liberal/aristocratic beliefs. Elected as deputy for the Province of Leon in the constituent assembly of the Second Republic, he became the leader of Agrupación al Servicio de la República – intellectuals who supported the platform of the Socialist Republicans. Disillusioned by parliamentary government, Ortega quickly abandoned politics. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he fled to Argentina. He wrote several clever books of no real depth, continuing the theme of lament begun in The Revolt of the Masses. Of course, the rise he lamented most of all was that of Gen. Franco.
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Links and Notes
(1) Jose Ortega y Gasset, Mission of the University (Princeton University Press, 1944), pp. 14 -21.
(2) Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1932), pp. 11-16.
(3) Stanley G. Payne, The Spanish Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 12-23.