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The classic theory of revolution was formulated by Alexis de Tocqueville, who observed in The Ancien Régime and the Revolution that “it was precisely in those parts of France where there had been the most improvement that popular discontent ran highest.” Revolution is not generally provoked by deteriorating conditions; rather, complaints tend to increase after conditions have already begun to improve. “The regime destroyed by a revolution is almost always better than the one that immediately preceded it, and experience teaches us that the most hazardous moment for a bad government is normally when it is beginning to reform.” The absolutist government of Louis XIV had provoked less resentment than did the milder rule of Louis XVI.

Tocqueville’s observation has been borne out by history. Modern revolutions take place not in the most traditional societies, but in polities in which a certain degree of reform and modernization has already occurred. The preliminary revolution, called by Jonathan Israel the “revolution of the mind,” consists of rising expectations. Once such attitudes have taken hold, some new crisis or setback, which may or may not be important in itself, can trigger revolution.

Revolutions succeed only where the old order is relatively weak. Because the existing regime offers little resistance, the revolution’s initial stages may be comparatively easy, not accompanied by great disorder or bloodshed. Over time, though, the revolutionary process leads to greater radicalization and greater carnage, often involving civil or foreign war. It may stimulate violent opposition and, in some cases, a counterrevolutionary movement that may be almost as radical, though with a very different program.

Spain provides the only example of a full-scale, mass, violent collectivist revolution developing out of a modern Western liberal democratic polity. The Second Spanish ­Republic of 1931–39 had created the first liberal democratic system in the country’s history, with, at first, impartial elections based on universal suffrage and broad constitutional guarantees of civil rights. This achievement did not prevent revolution and civil war.

Spain was unique as well in the absence of the ­variable that had enabled revolution elsewhere in Europe during the first half of the twentieth ­century: defeat in a major war, which sometimes ended in foreign occupation. Defeat in war, more than the strength of revolutionaries, was what had destabilized or destroyed the established order in other European countries. Spain, by contrast, had been Europe’s leading neutral during World War I and had suffered no direct international pressures during the war or after. Even the Great Depression was proportionately less severe for Spain, given its modest export economy. There was no overwhelming military or economic cause of radicalization. The Spanish brought the revolutionary process on themselves: No country was less a victim of external circumstances.

Spain’s revolutionary process began in April 1931, with the almost bloodless overthrow of the monarchy of Alfonso XIII. Alfonso’s fall was partly a consequence of the dynamic 1920s, which had produced the most rapid social and economic transformation in the country’s long history. For those in the burgeoning socialist and anarcho-syndicalist movements, regime change promised not so much democratization as further rapid transformation, which soon would verge on the millenarian. Meeting no organized opposition, a self-constituted “Revolutionary Committee” formed the first government of Spain’s Second Republic as a multi-party coalition. But the various factions making up this coalition—moderate centrist democrats, leftist republicans, and the rapidly growing socialist movement—had conflicting agendas.

Javier Tusell memorably described the Republic as a “not very democratic democracy.” There was disagreement about respecting the rules of the game, which were fully accepted only by the center and a reorganized moderate right. All the leftist groups insisted on a regime that was either exclusively leftist or (in the case of socialists) evolving rapidly toward revolution, while a tiny extreme right had its own goals. The early republican government ruled repressively in 1931–32, refusing to allow monarchists to participate on an equal ­footing in the first parliamentary elections and for some time prohibiting most public meetings by forces to the right of center. Though the new constitution was a genuinely democratic document, it rarely was fully respected, and complete civil liberties were upheld on fewer than half the days of the brief life of the Republic.

No policy was more controversial than the left’s determination to restrict the role of the Church. The Constitution of 1931 curtailed religious freedom, outraging many Catholics. The Republic’s new president, Niceto Alcalá Zamora, warned that it was “a constitution made for a civil war.” Spanish society soon became so divided and so politically mobilized that the possibility of peaceful coexistence slipped from view.

Disagreements between the socialists and the moderate left led to the breakup of the original governing coalition and new elections in 1933. These elections, in which women voted for the first time, were the first fully free and democratic contest in Spanish history. Popular reaction against heavy-handed leftist policies resulted in victory for the democratic center and moderate right.

A new Catholic coalition, the Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rights (CEDA), emerged suddenly as the largest single force. This development astounded the left, which sought four times to convince Alcalá Zamora to cancel the election results, but he held firm. Though the moderate right scrupulously adhered to legalities, from that time forward the left labeled all right-of-center elements “fascist.” Despite its own divisions, the Spanish left remained convinced that the Republic must be an exclusively progressivist regime, no matter the outcome of elections. Votes for the right were regarded as illegitimate.

In the 1930s, the dominant leftist model of revolution was still the Leninist tactic of direct insurrection. That was the goal of Spain’s most extreme movement, the mass anarcho-syndicalist Iberian Anarchist Federation–National Confederation of Labour (FAI-CNT), and Europe’s prime example of the seeming oxymoron “organized anarchism.” The FAI-CNT never pretended to respect elections and launched three different poorly coordinated revolutionary insurrections between January 1932 and ­December 1933. But anarchist violence was not a true threat to the system. It constituted what some of its adepts called “revolutionary gymnastics,” trial runs against a lenient liberalism. Even less significant was a prominent general’s forlorn attempt to moderate the regime through an abortive military ­pronunciamiento in August 1932. That cost ten lives, the anarchist mini-insurrections several hundred.

A threshold was crossed at the beginning of October 1934, when the centrist minority government broadened to include four moderate ministers from the Catholic CEDA, establishing rule by a parliamentary majority and respecting civil guarantees. The socialists responded by launching a revolutionary insurrection in fifteen of the fifty provinces of Spain. This insurrection, much more serious than the activities of the anarchists, produced martial law and two weeks of fighting in the mining province of Asturias. Nearly 1,400 people were killed in the conflict, much of the center of Oviedo was destroyed, large sums were stolen from the city’s banks, and about fifty people were murdered by the revolutionaries, including a group of Catholic seminarians. The troops who put down the revolt also shot a number of prisoners out of hand. More than fifteen thousand revolutionaries were arrested, doubling the country’s modest prison population, though many were soon released. Full constitutional guarantees would not be restored for fifteen months.

This was the most violent, broad-based revolt in the turbulent history of Europe from 1924 to 1939, and it drew considerable international attention. A massive campaign, financed partly by the Comintern, denounced not the wanton violence and destruction by the insurrection but the repression that followed it. In fact, the republican government enforced the mildest repression after a major revolt in Europe since the Paris Commune of 1871. But the revolutionary insurrection was justified in the press as an act of defending democracy against fascism. This agitation, international in scope, marked the beginning of the mythification of the revolutionary process in Spain, an attitude that persists in some quarters to the present day. The portrayal of revolutionary insurrection as a defense of democracy followed Trotsky’s maxim in his History of the Russian Revolution: To have the best chance, revolutionaries must appear to act on the defensive when seizing power.

The failure of direct insurrection required a change in strategy. The left began to seize absolute power through the democratic process itself, advancing revolutionary aims under the cover of legality.

Revolutions often require nonrevolutionary enablers. In Spain, two figures played this role, one a centrist, the other a leftist moderate. The first was the Republic’s Catholic president, Alcalá ­Zamora. A centrist who suffered from a messianic complex, Alcalá Zamora believed that he alone could save the regime. Spain’s constitution placed republican governments under “double responsibility,” to a parliamentary vote and to the president, who thus could both authorize and terminate individual governments. Alcalá Zamora used this power ruthlessly to manipulate a democratically elected parliament, often appointing minority administrations and making responsible government impossible. He agreed with the left that the center-right CEDA party, which he saw as a rival, was dangerously “fascist.” Thus, he permitted majority parliamentary government only from October 1934 to October 1935, and later arbitrarily called new elections for February 1936, when parliament still had nearly two years of life. This act proved disastrous. Instead of remaking the center right in his own image, Alcalá Zamora gravely weakened it. While insisting that his rivals on the right were dangerously extreme, he gave the defeated revolutionaries a new lease on life.

The second enabler was Manuel Azaña, leader of the moderate republican left, whose role is sometimes compared to that of Alexander Kerensky in Russia. Azaña’s goal was to further the aims of the Jacobin anticlerical Republic of 1931 through progressivist reforms that stopped short of collectivist revolution. Since his own forces commanded scarcely 20 percent of the vote, he reentered an electoral coalition with the socialists, despite their turn to revolution, convincing himself that somehow another opportunity to share power would moderate them.

At this stage, Spanish communists began to acquire importance. Hitherto the Comintern’s revolutionary policy had failed disastrously throughout Europe, especially in facilitating Hitler’s triumph in Germany. Stalin’s response was to shift from Leninist insurrection to the fascist tactic of political maneuver and coalition, exploiting elections when possible. In 1935, he introduced a new strategy of Popular Front electoral agreements with left-liberal forces, creating broad “antifascist alliances.” The Comintern Congress announcing the change in tactics made clear that this was a two-step maneuver that postponed revolution temporarily in order to beat back fascism before proceeding to its final goal. The banner of the Popular Front was eventually assumed in Spain by a broad electoral alliance of the left, led by Azaña and the socialists, with the small communist party initially playing a modest role.

The elections of February 1936 registered extreme polarization. The liberal center was virtually wiped out, with most of the vote divided almost evenly between the Popular Front and the Catholic right, which, despite renewed violence from the left, continued to respect the rules of the game. The voting was calm and regular at first, but on the evening of election day Popular Front mobs began to gather in the larger cities, in some cases breaking into polling places. Disturbances continued for the next three days. A recent study by Manuel Álvarez Tardío and Roberto Villa García has shown that the results were falsified in at least ten provinces, handing a decisive victory to the left. The centrist caretaker government in charge of elections resigned precipitously, and the hapless Alcalá Zamora, his plans in ruins, found no other way of controlling the rioting than to hand power to a minority government of Azaña and the republican left. Electoral fraud was the decisive step in renewing the revolutionary process. It was followed by three further phases of electoral manipulation, which by May had secured an overwhelming Popular Front majority in parliament.

There developed an absurd situation wherein ever more revolutionary activism was accompanied by ever less government. Since Azaña and his followers refused to cooperate with the Catholic right, they fell hostage to the revolutionaries. The left republican government in Madrid from February to July 1936 came to resemble the Provisional Government in St. Petersburg from March to November 1917—the main difference being that in Spain there was no Lenin, and no single dominant revolutionary actor like the Bolsheviks.

Though they were still divided among themselves, for the next five months the revolutionary movements participated in a prerevolutionary offensive with destructive zeal. Spain was roiled by violent demonstrations, strikes, mob outbursts, acts of arson and property destruction, and the direct seizure of farmland. Local governments under socialist control often abetted and sometimes led such actions. The socialists sought to use the republican government as cover for promoting violence and social breakdown, hoping that a weak-armed reaction from the right might provide justification for a socialist-dominated revolutionary government with broad power.

The most complex and disciplined plan was developed by the Comintern. It sought to transform Spain through a three-step process: from broad Popular Front, to a revolutionary but still semi-pluralist “worker-peasant government” that nominally retained aspects of bourgeois legality, to an eventual communist regime. As it turned out, the civil war would bring the rapid expansion of communist power and yet forestall the full completion of the second phase of the Comintern plan.

This process had no equivalent elsewhere in Western Europe, not even in Germany’s Weimar Republic. It is the only example of a parliamentary constitutional system, under radical control, providing cover for social and political breakdown. Though the Azaña government occasionally took measures to restrain the anarcho-syndicalists, who did not form part of the Popular Front voting bloc, it scarcely ever took action against the socialists and communists, without whose support in parliament the Azaña administration could not remain in power. Moreover, security personnel and state officials who supported the revolutionaries often directly aided the revolution through judicial, administrative, or police action. Moderate and conservative voices protested, to no avail. With the state apparatus entirely under leftist control, the choices were submission or a desperate revolt with most uncertain consequences. In later years, after the left lost the civil war that had ensued from its actions, its spokesmen charged conservatives with irresponsible impatience, insisting that the divided revolutionaries had reached their limit and somehow everything would soon have settled down—though this is hardly convincing.

The volume of prerevolutionary assaults was staggering. They included a great strike wave, which often sought expropriation and was accompanied by much violence and destruction; increasing state censorship; direct seizures of property, sometimes legalized ex post facto; extensive arson and property destruction; direct seizures of church buildings; forcible closure of many Catholic schools; arbitrary arrests of several thousand members of rightist parties; the increasing politicization of justice accompanied by new legislation to control the courts; and subversion of the security forces through reappointment of police personnel affiliated with the revolutionaries, as well as the designation of hundreds of revolutionary activists as “police delegates” with formal authority, rather like Nazi Hilfspolizei in 1933. Most destructive of all was the growth of political violence, with about four hundred killings in political incidents in five months. The small fascist Falange party struck back with targeted killings, further enraging the revolutionaries. The government abetted this process of radicalization through a slowly escalating dissolution of rightist parties, beginning with the Falange in March. Catholic trade unions were outlawed in May, and two months later the chief monarchist party was dissolved in Catalonia.

The revolutionaries exhibited absolute self-­confidence, based on two considerations. The first was that all state power lay in the hands of leftist allies, disarming the opposition. The second was that conservative forces were simply too weak and demoralized to react, already “on the scrap-heap of history.” Should part of the army rebel, this could be no more than a feeble effort, easily controlled, providing justification for direct assertion of revolutionary power and a new regime.

No people in modern times has endured such prolonged abuse without a vigorous response, however desperate. The ultimate catalyst for civil war came in the early hours of July 13, 1936. Republican police, accompanied by socialist militia, illegally arrested and soon murdered the chief spokesman for the parliamentary opposition. When it became clear that republican government forces had been responsible, the effect was electric. Even the most cautious opponents of the regime were roused to action. General ­Francisco Franco, who had persistently urged restraint, decided that the time had come to act, and four days later about half the armed forces began to rebel against the left republican government. Yet a united coup d’etat was impossible, for military officers were almost as divided as Spanish society. Nearly all the commanding generals were loyal to the government in power, while the more militant middle and lower-ranking officers frequently committed their units to armed revolt. The military rebellion that started the Portuguese revolution of 1974 has been described as a “revolt of the captains” because it received little support (and much opposition) from senior military leaders. The same could be said of Spain in 1936.

Modern democracy succumbed to revolution by degrees. Revolutionaries who had violently challenged the system received absolution from a lenient and confused regime. They then resumed their challenge through coalition-building and electoral politics. Corrupt elections provided cover for a broad prerevolutionary offensive. The left believed that any response from the right would be weak and abortive and would serve only to provide legal justification for a full takeover executed in the name of “antifascism” and “defending democracy.”

Throughout, the revolution maintained the shell of a republican government under a figurehead Azaña to camouflage the process—a camouflage that persists in the writing of many historians to this day—in the vain hope of gaining support from the democratic governments in Paris and London. In fact, centrifugal revolutionary activism, disruptive and violent in the extreme, fatally weakened the entire revolutionary cause. Perhaps the left’s gravest mistake was to transform the conflict into a war of religion. If the revolution had not set itself against the Church, it would likely have prevailed. But its partisans could not help themselves.

Revolution is not an event but a process, and a complex one. Radicals who fail to overthrow a constitutional system by force may find it useful to exploit that same system. Though their intention is to destroy the regime, they can purport to defend it when its institutions serve their short-term interests. They will invoke free speech as a cover for left-wing violence, even as they deny it to peaceful demonstrators on the right. They will honor votes unless they endanger progressive dominance, in which case the victorious right will be labelled “­undemocratic.” In these circumstances, far from being a guarantee against revolutionary takeover, democratic ­procedures provide cover for its advance. 

Stanley G. Payne is the Jaume Vicens Vives and Hilldale Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.