Republic of Egos: A Social History of the Spanish Civil War.
In Republic of Egos, Michael Seidman offers a new take on the Spanish Civil War. Seidman decries the excessive historiographic emphasis upon the force and extent of formal ideological beliefs in driving the conflict; he argues that individualism, in various guises, shaped military and civilian behavior on both sides to a much greater degree than the collective identities of class and gender. Seidman offers a detailed chronological account of the war while remaining focused on the relative successes and failures of the Republican and Nationalists governments in providing basic biological necessities such as food, clothing, and medical care. Though acknowledging the better known causes of the Republican defeat, he convincingly argues that the Nationalists' superior ability to provision military and civilian populations, its much greater respect for private property, and its success in maintaining monetary stability ultimately proved decisive to the outcome. Explicitly comparative in its analysis--and drawing examples from the seventeenth century civil wars on the British Isles, the U.S. Civil War, the Russian Civil War, as well as other conflicts--Seidman concludes that the Republicans proved incapable of waging an industrial war against an insurgency with a much stronger and more stable agrarian base.
The book begins with a hearty and rousing call to avoid the pitfalls of social historical research that privileges group over individual, and often anonymous, experiences. Seidman writes: "The emphasis on the collective experience of a class or a gender assumes and even encourages the discovery or invention of a community or commonality that may not have existed" (page 5). Instead, Seidman focuses on that which limited social integration. He offers up three types of individualism: acquisitive, entrepreneurial, and subversive. Rather than simply assigning such behaviors just to the bourgeoisie, Seidman provides exhaustive evidence of individualism all around. Soldiers and civilians, Nationalists and Republicans, rural and urban populations in the north, the south, the periphery and the interior all increasingly held immediate self interest above the various intermingled causes of class, ideology, nation, or region as the struggle wore on.
The strength of Seidman's argument rests in his accounts of the material conditions faced by the forces on both sides and of soldiers' and villagers' responses to deprivations of multiple varieties. He shows how desertions, profiteering, hoarding, and plunder were widespread. His attention to urban expressions of individualism, while compelling, is less detailed. But the broader picture he offers is crisp and tremendously important. The attention he pays to food production and distribution is especially illuminating. From early on in the war, the Nationalists enjoyed an advantage in controlling the bulk of wheat producing and cattle grazing territories. The Republicans' initial control over the main olive oil, wine, and citrus growing regions proved less advantageous in the challenge to keep soldiers and cities fed, despite the fact that these commodities served as vital exports. While the Nationalists moved away from food expropriation more quickly and proved more able to control soldiers' plundering of the countryside, the Republicans imposed tasas (price controls) that favored urban consumers but that had the effect of discouraging production and encouraging hoarding and black marketeering. Seidman emphasizes the diverging interests of rural versus urban populations on the Republican side and contrasts these with the more effective agrarian and provisioning policies of the Nationalists. He holds that material privations, and especially hunger, were at the center of the Republic's defeat. By the end of the war, cynicism had eclipsed ideology on the Republican side and the social order had devolved into a simple division between those who had access to food and those who did not.
There is little doubt that this book will contribute to the already contentious historiographic debates surrounding the Spanish Civil War even though (and, perhaps, precisely because) it is much more about what united than what divided Spaniards. Though individuals rather than groups are the purported units of analysis, what emerges is nonetheless an expansive portrait of the strength of patria chica bonds, that is, personal commitment to family, friends, and village. Those things presumed by historians to chronically and pathologically divide Spain and Spaniards--class, political ideology, nationalism(s), etc.--are shown here to have had less force during the war, when push came to shove, than simple forms of pervasive cantonalism.
Likewise, while Seidman sets out to show the limitations of standard conceptions of collective identity, he also freely explores their strengths. With respect to gender, in particular, Republic of Egos offers more examples of women acting collectively to further common interests, especially in terms of food rioting and participation in clandestine black marketing and barter networks, than of women acting in individualist capacities to undermine one another's' survival. And tantalizingly, Seidman alludes to the significance his work bears to the later emergence of consumer society in Spain. Though this part of the argument does not receive the attention it warrants in the conclusion, it is not implausible that the loaded emotional values associated with food in the second half of the twentieth century in Spain are linked to the intense caloric deprivations that many suffered in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Still, it is more likely that acquisitive, entrepreneurial, and subversive individualisms during the Spanish Civil War reflected the strength of an already existing consumerist culture and were popular expressions of frustration with the breakdown of the systems that brought food, tobacco, coffee, alcohol and other consumer commodities into the marketplace. Seidman appears overly convinced that consumer culture did not take hold in Spain until the onset of economic recovery in the 1950s. Though very little scholarship traces the earlier phases of consumerism in Spain, there is abundant evidence suggesting a periodization for the emergence of Iberian consumer culture in line with that most of Western Europe.
Seidman has raised provocative questions while also offering what is perhaps the best account in print detailing why the Loyalists lost the war. An absolutely indispensable source, no scholar of Spain in the twentieth century should go without reading this book.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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