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Why Democracy Failed. The Agrarian Origins of the Spanish Civil War

Author(s):Simpson, James
Carmona, Juan
Reviewer(s):Riesco, Sergio

Published by EH.Net (October 2022).

James Simpson and Juan Carmona. Why Democracy Failed. The Agrarian Origins of the Spanish Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. xviii + 299 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-108-72038-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Sergio Riesco, Department of Contemporary History, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM, Spain).


Throughout the 20th century, most Western European countries underwent a process of agricultural modernisation that enabled them to achieve the longed-for food sovereignty. In the case of Spain, this sovereignty was not achieved until barely 60 years ago, leaving the country dependent on wheat imports for most of its history. Just a few decades later, at the end of the 20th century, Spain was one of the largest suppliers of products from the primary sector both worldwide and, especially, to the European Union. Today, as in other neighbouring countries, agriculture and livestock farming account for approximately 10% of GDP and employ barely 4 percent of the labour force.

These data show that Spain, in less than 50 years, has reached the same destination as other countries. However, the delay in this modernisation process has been the subject of a rich and extensive scientific literature. It seems logical that the debate has focused on the first attempt at democratisation in its history: the Second Republic, built in the middle of the crisis of the 1930s. Perhaps we can speak of an Iberian peculiarity: long dictatorships that repelled the attempts at democratisation until the 1970s.

Why Democracy Failed. The Agrarian Origins of the Spanish Civil War aims to provide a new approach to several of these questions. The authors are leading specialists in economic history. James Simpson is the author of one of the most prestigious books on the long-term agrarian history of Spain, La Agricultura Española: La Larga Siesta (1997). Juan Carmona is a leading expert on the functioning of agrarian institutions in contemporary history. In this work, the authors attempt to articulate an overall interpretation of the failure of the Spanish democratic experiment, focusing on the state’s inability to give a voice and political weight to family farming.

One of the book’s great merits is that it situates the Spanish problem in its European context. The analysis of agriculture during the “age of economic instability” is essential to understanding the sustained growth of the family farm throughout the period 1870-1939. The authors delve into the structural limits of Spanish agriculture, in particular the enormous variety of farming and land tenure systems. In the face of all this, the growth thresholds of Spanish agriculture were limited by an environmental issue that has been highlighted in numerous studies (Pujol, et al. 2001).

Traditionally, Spanish agriculture has been polarised between two main models: the North of the country, where family farming followed a path dependence similar to that of the rest of Europe; and the South, where large farms predominated and were not always cultivated in an optimal way. The authors point to a greater fragmentation of land ownership in the South that would weaken this model, since they present numerous examples of dynamism, adjusted to the market, on the part of Southern landowners.

Another issue of great interest raised by the book is the scarce information available to the state on agrarian problems. Spain, although an agrarian country, lacked a ministry of agriculture until the arrival of the Second Republic. Then again, this fact is somewhat misleading. After the creation of the Instituto de Reformas Sociales in 1905, Spain promoted various research projects to identify the problems of the Spanish economy, especially in the agrarian sector. This situation is related in the book to a weakness of the state that related to Spain’s neutrality during the First World War. According to this hypothesis, the lack of incentives to organise a wartime economy limited the country’s capacity to face the enormous problems of the inter-war period.

Faced with a new political opportunity structure along the Second Republic, agrarian actors defended their interests according to a coherent logic. Along the lines already proposed by Malefakis (1970), but with some nuances, Simpson and Carmona propose that the clash between the different opposing blocs (great landowners and unionised landless peasants) was resolved in a violent manner, among other reasons, because a third way (that of the family farmers) had no options in the face of the radicalisation of positions.

Beyond the political interpretation, the authors’ purely economic interpretation seems more appropriate, because it raises the question of whether the problem was one of “too much land or too many workers.” This points to a rather convincing misallocation of resources (capital, land, labour).

Every book that leads in one way or another to the Spanish civil war presents a huge difficulty: the distribution of responsibilities. As is well known, this is one of the most widely discussed topics on a global level by specialists of all kinds and from all parts of the world. The greatest difficulty is, in my view, that of taking the part for the whole. The democratic era of the Second Republic had both conservative and relatively progressive governments. The latter were in power for only 30 months and tried to build the State that should have taken the lead in a balanced and productive reform. They did all this in the middle of the global impact of the crisis of 1929 and, therefore, without the resources to enable irrigation policies to provide a medium-term solution to the serious yield problems facing Spanish agriculture.

However, the other bloc, the conservative one, did nothing to contribute to the construction of this modern state. Rather, it chose to dismantle any reformist attempt made by its political enemies. The third way suggested by the authors could have worked, but in the day-to-day life of the 30 months mentioned above, the problems of inequality were such that it was hardly possible to propose profound changes.

All the economic interpretations put forward in this book have a strong foundation based on existing literature and reliable sources. The radicalisation of the landless peasants did exist, and their political and trade union representatives were conditioned by it. But on the other side, “the families that shuddered at the mere name of agrarian reform” (Tuñón 2000, 341) were very powerful and would not give up their bargaining power. Rather, they put it at the service of a coup d’état that would delay the necessary economic modernisation of Spain for decades.

Why Democracy Failed offers a compelling contrast to Ricardo Robledo’s new book La Tierra Es Vuestra: La Reforma Agraria. Un Problema No Resuelto. Spain, 1900-1950.  Both books are essential reading for anyone looking to understand how Spain’s problems of inequality led to such a brutal and violent reaction.


Malefakis, Edward. 1970. Agrarian Reform and Peasant Revolution in Spain. Origins of the Civil War. Yale: University Press.

Pujol, Andreu, et al. 2001. El Pozo de Todos Los Males: Sobre El Atraso en la Agricultura Española Contemporánea. Barcelona: Crítica.

Robledo, Ricardo. 2022. La Tierra Es Vuestra: La Reforma Agraria. Un Problema No Resuelto. España: 1900-1950. Barcelona: Pasado & Presente.

Simpson, James. 1997. La Agricultura Española: La Larga Siesta (1765-1965). Madrid: Alianza.

Tuñón de Lara, Manuel. 2000. La España del Siglo XX. Madrid: Akal.


Sergio Riesco is Associate Lecturer at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM, Spain). His publications include “La Reforma Agraria y los Orígenes de la Guerra Civil: Cuestión Yuntera y Radicalización Patronal en la Provincia de Cáceres (1931-1940)” (Biblioteca Nueva, 2006) and “La Reforma Agraria Italiana Vista Desde España (1918-1953): Un Comentario Crítico” (Segle XX, 2020).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII