Political Comedy and Social Tragedy: Spain, a Laboratory of Social Conflict, 1897-1921

Research output: Book/ReportAuthored book


The history of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and, to a lesser extent, its immediate origins (the Second Republic, 1931-1936) and its aftermath, the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1939-1975), have long ranked amongst the most fascinating subjects for research and debate – from secondary school to undergraduate and postgraduate students, professional historians, political scientists and members of the wider public. Regarding the Spanish Civil War, the thousands of monographs, films, memoirs, novels and documentaries are testimony to its enduring impact and place its study on the same level as other milestones of 20th Century Europe such as the Russian Revolution and the Third Reich.
That academic productivity contrasts dramatically with the dearth of monographs on Spain’s Restoration Monarchy, 1874-1931 (especially prior to 1917). The relatively scarce literature produced by Anglo-Saxon scholars have focused on specific (albeit important) themes: militarism (Boyd’s Praetorian Politics in Liberal Spain), colonial adventurism (Balfour’s The End of the Spanish Empire, 1898-1923 and Morocco and the Road to the Civil War) or the labour movement (Meaker’s The Revolutionary Left, 1914-1923, Smith’s Catalan Labour and the Crisis of the Spanish State, 1898-1923, etc.). The volume of Spanish historiography is obviously greater and includes excellent ground-breaking works: González Calleja’s studies on public order, Bengoechea’s work on Catalan employers, Avilés’ and Herrerín’s recent monographs on anarchist terrorism, etc. Nevertheless, Spanish scholarship is overall marked by the proliferation of local studies which therefore are confined to narrow boundaries.
A necessary prequel, to my earlier work, my book (Political Comedy and Social Tragedy. Spain, a Laboratory of Social Conflict, 1897-1921) explores Spain’s `path to modernity’. Its raison d’Être is, therefore and above all, to fill a sizeable hole in the historiography. This is rather puzzling, as the subject is of major historical significance both in Spanish and European history. From a purely Spanish perspective, we still lack a long-term analytical perspective of the internal social and political fissures which were the key to the breakdown of democratic politics and the outbreak of the civil war in the 1930s. In two previous monographs – Spain, 1914-1918, Between War and Revolution (Routledge, 1999) and Foundations of Civil War. Reaction, Revolution and Social Conflict in Spain, 1917-23 (Routledge, 2008) – I explored the impact of the Great War as a catalyst of social upheaval and a crucial factor in the undermining of the traditional system of elite liberal politics. However, by overlooking the previous decades of the monarchy, the key elements which led to its demise were not fully explored: the systematic failure of the governing classes to undertake, lead, and hence, control meaningful political reform, something which, had it been possible, could have facilitated a gradual transition to a modern democratic model. Furthermore, my previous research did not grasp the complex full picture of the endurance of upheaval/conflict as a constant factor in the socio-political realm as well as the connecting thread and the price to pay for this troubled path to modernity. Also, this much wider analysis in chronological terms helps understand the broader European framework. Indeed, my book studies the Spanish model as a perfect laboratory of social conflict during an age marked by rapid modernization and the parallel violence produced by the clash between the resilience/persistence of oligarchic liberalism in the face of increased opposition from newly mobilizing sectors of the population. In Spain as elsewhere in Europe, existing liberal orders had to face from late 19th century the challenge of organized popular protest via reformist or revolutionary actors. Yet, paradoxically, its demise, in the post-war years, would not come from that challenge but from the more effective and ruthless mobilization of a rekindled militarist, nationalist and authoritarian right which ousted a discredited liberal system no longer perceived as a reliable guarantor of the social order.
The period under enquiry is framed by two similar sets of circumstances: colonial debacles - the loss of the overseas empire in 1898 and the defeat in Annual (Morocco) in 1921- and the murder of two prime ministers: Antonio Cánovas (1897) and Eduardo Dato (1921). Its chronological framework highlights a kind of Groundhog Day. During nearly a quarter of a century, Spain underwent a process of significant demographic, cultural and economic modernization. Yet, the political landscape seemed to be in a situation of déjà vu. My monograph explores the thesis that the structural tensions surrounding the crisis of the liberal state could be explained by the correlation between two conceptual terms which appeared to be contradictory: comedy (electoral falsification and clientelism) and tragedy (constant spiral of social violence: anarchist terror and praetorian-led repression). Its historical framework will help answer the question put by the British Intelligence Bureau about the Spanish Monarchy: Can a leopard ever change its spots?’ The doyen of British Hispanism, Sir Raymond Carr, argued the case for positively. The regime’s demise by a military coup (September 1923) did not finish off an ailing body but `strangled a new birth’ since it was evolving towards a genuine democracy. In a previous monograph, I suggested that Carr’s thesis can no longer be sustained. Nevertheless, a crucial question remains. Was Spain’s ruling order, however resilient and capable of clinging on to power for two more decades despite its legitimacy being increasingly questioned from 1898, unable or unwilling to embrace reform when faced with the dual challenge of revolution from below and the subsequent military reaction?
Given its nature, this book is indebted to the analytical methodology of two closely related historical disciplines. One consists of a traditional study of high politics (ruling parties, crown and military). The other draws upon social history (class consciousness, identity formation, popular mobilization, social conflict). By bringing them together, this book’s objective is to offer a comprehensive analysis of Spain’s crisis of modernization; a crisis marked by complex socio-political realignments and unprecedented levels of violence.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationBrighton
PublisherSussex Academic Press
Number of pages363
ISBN (Print)9781789760071
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sept 2020


  • Terror, Violence, anarchism, modernity, social conflict, political comedy


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