The Spanish Civil War started as a medium-size resource allocation dispute

“How the Spanish Civil War Became Europe’s Battlefield” is an interesting lecture series by Pamela Radcliff, a professor at UCSD.

According to the teacher, the political fight that started the war was about how much low-skill workers should be paid. The progressive Republicans wanted workers to be richer without them having to learn more (e.g., to read) or work harder. The conservative Monarchists, who became the Nationalists, did not want the government intervening in the labor market or allocating farmland, especially out of concern for small business owners.

The conservatives called the progressives “Communists” and the progressives called the conservatives “Fascists.” These monikers were inaccurate at first, but eventually each side lived up to the other’s worst caricatures. The progressives seized the means of production and had the workers take over from the capitalists. Farms were collectivized. The conservatives joined up with fascists in Germany and Italy. Both sides killed anyone who disagreed with them. (About 500,000 people were killed, including thousands of Catholic priests killed by the progressives.)

In other words, the political situation in mid-1930s Spain wasn’t that different from what we have here in the U.S. today! The Spanish, of course, did not enjoy the abundant natural resources that we stole from the Native Americans. And Spain did not have a big flood of low-skill immigrants like the one that is purportedly continuously enriching the United States (or at least the elites).

It would have been interesting if the Republicans had won the civil war. This would have been a tough challenge because, though President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted to assist his fellow progressive economic reformers, anti-Communist sentiment in the U.S. Congress prevented him from sending weapons and U.S. tax dollars. The Soviet Union did send weapons and personnel, but they were no match for what the Germans and Italians were providing to the Nationalists and the progressives did a lot of fighting and purging amongst themselves (anyone who didn’t follow the Communist line was labeled a Trotskyite). But if the Republicans had won, it would have been interesting to see their collective farms spread all across Spain, their central planning, their workers’ paradise in the heart of 1950s Europe.

Separately, Spain today is acting against its own economic interests, if our politicians are to be believed, by trying to reduce the number of economy-boosting low-skill immigrants:

Note that this lecture series is also available on Audible.

18 thoughts on “The Spanish Civil War started as a medium-size resource allocation dispute

  1. This is a mischaracterization to label Francists and Spanish Monarchists as allies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Spanish conservatives did not want to break from Britain, which helped them fight against Napoleon in 19th century and which could easily blockade Spanish coastline. So yes, German Nazis and Italian Fascists helped Franco. But he did not help them back, refused Hitler’s nudging to enter WWII and kept Spain out of WWII. There was Spanish volunteer detachment fighting on Eastern Front for the Nazis but it was mostly obliterated, although it was prized for its fighting skills.

  2. Phil’s contrived description of the causes of the Spanish Civil War sounds like his teacher was Jeff Spicoli rather than Pamela Radcliff.

    • jdc: Since you are, apparently, an expert in this field, why not offer your own explanation of the causes of the war rather than criticize others’ explanations? (the original post is a summary of Professor Radcliff’s explanation)

      See , especially the following:

      The most valued comments are alternative perspectives. … The least valued comments are reviews of the posting, good or bad. The reader has just read the entire posting. He or she doesn’t need someone else’s opinion that “this was great” or “this was bad”. Reviews make sense in the off-line world where consuming the book or movie happens after reading the review and takes a lot more time and effort. In the online world, the comments are usually read after the item being reviewed has been consumed.

    • (Let me apologize here for the gender binarism in the 20-year-old comment moderation policy document.)

    • I wish to conjunctively attack Toucan Sam’s motivation , intelligence, and character.

      Only disjunctive attacks appear verboten under site moderation policy.

      For avoidance of doubt, neither this instant comment nor it’s author should be construed as being in any way clever.

      Regards and felicitations,


    • @Heros von Borcke! I am of poor intelligence (especially considering I am bird brained) and of corrupt moral character. My motivations are only to make fun of the comment moderation policy and spread hatred! I am clearly not “clever”. When I came to this blog 20 years ago I immediately began commenting on my favorite topic of all time, the “comment moderation policy”! Over the years our fine host Phillip has basically made me exempt from the policy. I am always allowed to post the most “least valued” comments such as “this is great!” I regularly post comments that are clearly “ad hominem” (or as Phil phrases it, “Comments that attack another person’s motivation, intelligence…etc) such as “Mike is a dumb dumb”. Never once was one comment moderated. In the comment moderation policy our fine host Phil says that “all comments are held for moderation before going live”. This is clearly a lie! The only thing I am currently being moderated is my current use of a forbidden word ([the n-word]). Phil’s AI is too weak to regularly filter out this forbidden word ([]) regularly so he ends up moderating (or as he calls it bowdlerize” that word ([]) days or weeks after the original post. He only does this to keep a google platform (whatever that is). So in summery not clever.. but still having fun. Has anyone heard from Pavel recently?

    • “Cute/clever comments that are off-topic should only be published if they are very cute and clever indeed. Off-topic content breeds more off-topic content.” Although I am not clever I think my comment was very cute! Hope it generates more off topic content! Let’s see if we can get to 50 posts….

    • TS: I updated the moderation policy to note that comments aren’t held. The anti-spam plug-in to WordPress is a lot more effective than what was in place (nothing?) back when it was hosted by Harvard.

      I do wish you wouldn’t include the n-word, however you’re going to spell it. The righteous of Google will surely give a lower rank to a site that contains what they deem to be hate speech. Why make it easy for them to target this site for oblivion?

  3. I do have familiarity with the subject, and I find the brief description of Phil interesting. Actually the sentence “eventually each side lived up to the other’s worst caricatures” is one of the best I have ever read about the Spanish Cilvil War. I don’t think we need to have a Monty Python “Summarize Proust Competition” here.

    I do see lots of similarities between Spain in 1936 and the current situation in the US.

    • The same comment could describe the descent into barbarism that characterised the Irish independence struggle and civil war some 15 years earlier, and still has echoes today (see also the recent allegorical movie hit The Banshees of Inisherin). In fact the exhibition in the Dublin General Post Office* makes the point that Ireland set an example for many later civil and colonial conflicts. Looking at many of these, as well as Spain and Ireland, one can only be astonished at the eagerness of partisans to murder and torture their opponents and colleagues alike for what were often petty or illusory goals, rather than working directly for their own prosperity: as Dr Johnson may have said, “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money” []. If this blood-lust is exceptional even in today’s USA, history shows how it can spread out of control, which arguably, and despite the enormous loss of life, did not happen in the US Civil War.

      * Where independence agitators martyred themselves by staging an armed uprising in the middle of a World War and supported by the UK’s chief war enemy.

  4. While former USSR did helped Spanish Republicans, its military used the opportunity to develop new tactics, sometimes getting it backwards and sometimes hitting a bullseye. But world’s communists did indeed participate in Spanish Civil war on Republican side to establish communism in Spain. Some time ago I read an eulogy of such a commie who moved to Seattle after Spanish Civil War and was kvetching ever since that he was mistreated was being a commie and fighting to impose communism. He did not move to Stalin’s USSR to keep fighting the Nazis, he did not volunteer with British military to fight Nazis starting 1939 as some non-communist Americans did, he did not volunteer to fight Japan in China as some non-communist Americans did (see American Volunteer Groups, The Flying Tigers). He did not even volunteer to fight in US military in WWII and did not fought in WWII at all. But he was a great hero for his clueless admirers.

  5. If history offers lessons, the Spanish Civil War proved how easily polarization can lead to tragedy. Unfortunately, most of us don’t live under what Spinoza called “guidance of reason” and prefer to use manifestly absurd beliefs instead of knowledge and understanding. That applies to all sides of the current socio-political unrest in this country.

    George Santayana’s quotes are perhaps more relevant than ever.

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

    —Life of Reason, Reason in Common Sense, Scribner’s, 1905, p. 284.

    “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim”

    —Life of Reason, Reason in Common Sense, Scribner’s, 1905, p. 13.

    • I prefer Winston Churchill: “A fanatic is someone who won’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” (that was me in 1993 regarding the potential of the World Wide Web!)

  6. Another lesson of the Spanish Civil War is that you cannot have a functioning democracy in an uneducated country. Spain in 1930 had a literacy rate of less than 70%., lower than the one in India now.

    We live in a time of fantastic access to information. The average person has heard about advanced physics, distant conflicts, climate change… That person, most likely able to read, and while so exposed to information, might think that Ohm’s law is some regulation restricting abortion that has just been passed in Florida. Basic literacy is no longer the “minimum standard” of education.

    Also, the modern economy requires a productive work force that can, for example, maintain the electric grid so we can recharge our smartphones. We cannot have prosperity without productivity and we cannot have productivity without an educated work force (perhaps AI can change that and the future does not care if we are educated or not).

    In 1936 Spain was in the process of becoming a modern country, unfortunately reality was behind imagination. Like in Spain almost a century ago, I do think that many people’s desires in the US are not supported by the realities of our society.

    • What’s the lesson of the Hitler Germany, then, where literacy was 100% in 1930 ? “You cannot have a functioning democracy in a” 100% educated country ?

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