Sunday, February 18, 2007

Spain and the left in the 1930's

There is a long and interesting piece in the Guardian by the historian Eric Hobsbawm. Supposedly about intellectuals and the Spanish Civil War, I read this with a growing sense of unease as I felt it slipping into a sophisticated apologia for the intellectual Stalinists of the 1930's.

There are some occasions when I fully agree with him. For instance, He rightly protests at the 'should have' approach to history, where political protagonists play around with the past for their own purposes;

"Today it is possible to see the civil war, Spain's contribution to the tragic history of that most brutal of centuries, the 20th, in its historical context. It was not, as the neoliberal François Furet argued it should have been, a war against both the ultra-right and the Comintern - a view shared, from a Trotskyist sectarian angle, by Ken Loach's powerful film Land and Freedom (1995). The only choice was between two sides, and liberal-democratic opinion overwhelmingly chose anti-fascism".

This sense of the necessity of a choice between fascism and anti-fascism was the force that propelled so many people into the arms of the Communist Party and I cannot quarrel with Hobsbawm's personal recollections of the urgency of the times. However, in doing so they were embracing a terrifying regime that was slaughtering its own at home and had carried out a genocide of the peasantry, it required faith rather than judgement and a revulsion with the liberal democracies in which they lived to make that commitment. For the rest of Hobsbawm's essay anti-fascism seems to becomes synonymous with Communism and the liberal democratic element drifts slowly out of sight.

The failure of the liberal democracies to aid the Republic and the absurdities of the Non-intervention Pact (how it resonates with the arms embargo to Bosnia) helped with Communist recruitment. It is too easy to talk of 1930's Communists in terms of moral failure without acknowledging the culpability of the regimes that palpably botched the challenge of fascist aggression. However, the most powerful, and moral, opposition to fascism did not come from Stalinism but from liberal democracy. Anti-fascism was not the monolith it may have appeared at the time of the Popular Front.

Hobsbawn throws out crumbs like,

"Moral revulsion against Stalinism and the behaviour of its agents in Spain is justified. It is right to criticise the communist conviction that the only revolution that counted was one that brought the party a monopoly of power."

But then he neatly brushes them aside as being "not central to the problem of the civil war". The necessity to win the war was the overwhelming concern, and the dilemmas that Hobsbawm pose were real enough. The two main ones were the need for military efficiency and for solidarity between all forces opposing Fascism, leading to a necessary conflict over the nature of the Spanish revolution. This he describes as related to the schisms in the left. In essence, it was the conflict between Marx and Bakunin. In any such quarrel, my prejudices would always lead me to tend to support Bakunin; Hobsbawm comes from the opposite side.

"Marx would have had to confront Bakunin even if all on the republican side had been angels. But it must be said that, among those who fought for the republic as soldiers, most found Marx more relevant than Bakunin - even though some survivors may recall the spontaneous but inefficient euphoria of the anarchist phase of liberation with tenderness as well as exasperation".

But this is not quite true. The dilemma posed by the revolution wasn't a product of the arguments of the First International written in blood on the Spanish landscape. This was not a conflict between Marx and Bakunin, but between Stalin and Bakunin. It was between totalitarian centralism and autonomous collectivism or, as Hobsbawm puts it, "between libertarian enthusiasm and disciplined organisation". Arguably, the reality of Stalinist tyranny may well have forced Marx into alliance with his bitter rival. All the while, sitting on the sidelines, was the very liberal democracy the war was nominally being fought to defend.

The perceived need for unity to ensure victory also leads Hobsbawm into support for the suppression of the truth. He damns Orwell with faint praise -"Only in the cold-war era did Orwell cease to be an awkward, marginal figure". Despite acknowledging that he told the truth in Homage to Catalonia, the book's initially poor sales were enough to allow him to argue for its lack of significance to the times.

My respect for those volunteers who went to fight in Spain makes outright condemnation difficult. If faced with the same dilemmas I have enough self-knowledge to realise that I would chicken out and make big speeches from a safe distance. Their commitment shamed their governments, though their courage was scarcely rewarded by the period between 28th August 1939 and 22nd June 1941 when Communists, far from being a bastion of anti-fascism, became the Nazi's allies. Those of us fortunate enough to have lived in Western democracies cannot guarantee that we would make the right choice faced with the profound threat posed by fascism. Hobsbawm is right to celebrate them, but his real purpose is the defence of intellectuals against those like Orwell who saw them as fatally compromised by a dalliance with Stalin.

Ultimately, this results in an exercise in wishful thinking used as a technique for the defence of intellectuals against polemicists, from George Orwell to Nick Cohen. Hobsbawm sees the writers and artists of the war as the creators of an historical record that excoriated fascism in Spain. He writes,

"But it is largely due to the intellectuals, the artists and writers who mobilised so overwhelmingly in favour of the republic, that in this instance history has not been written by the victors".

Any empirical historian would point out that the nature of fascism and the growing isolation of a repressive Spain in the context of the growing prosperity of post-war Europe would have ensured it a pretty bad press. And, of course, Franco may have won in Spain but fascism was defeated comprehensively elsewhere and the regime collapsed with his death. The victors did write the history, it was just that it was banned in Spain until after 1975.

Hobsbawm's optimistic conclusion is that "in creating the world's memory of the Spanish civil war, the pen, the brush and the camera wielded on behalf of the defeated have proved mightier than the sword and the power of those who won". However, what proved the mightiest of all was the ultimate victor of the wars of the 20th Century, the very capitalist liberal democracy that so many intellectuals despised and wished to see overthrown. It was the triumph of Enlightenment values that ensured that the Fascists got the press they deserved, not the literary works of Stalinist fellow travellers.

1 comment:

Meme chose said...

You are correct, but imagine where Hobsbawm would be if he conceded any of your points. His whole life would unravel like a sweater with a loose thread.