Thursday, 19 November 2009

Booklet on Spanish Civil War and its Aftermath: The Snobbery & Elitism of Professional Historians

In 2006, Tameside Trade Union Council and other North West trade unionists brought out a booklet to commemorate the kick-off of the Spanish Civil War: now in its 3rd edition [Oct. 2009] the book has been extended from 20 to 28 A4-size pages and has a Preface that uses Noam Chomsky's essay 'Objectivity & Liberal Scholarshipto challenge Professor Paul Preston's work 'The Spanish Civil War'.  This 3rd edition booklet by trade unionists defends Orwell's 'Homage to Cataloniaand the value of primary sources, and eye-witness accounts, against the glossing interpretations of professional historians like Preston.  It draws upon the observations, in interviews, letters and journal-form of the foot-soldiers, such as Ralph Cantor, Pedro Cuadrado and Orwell, mocked by Professor Preston.  Preston in the 2006 edition of his own book 'The Spanish Civil War' belittles other historians for being partisan, but makes it clear that he himself has an axe to grind.  This trade unionist 3rd edition booklet of 'The Spanish Civil War - The Aftermath', also includes an interview by Richard Porton with Ken Loach, the director of the film 'Land & Freedom' and a 1995 interview with Jim Allen, the screenwriter on the film.

Further reading - Manchester's Radical History has interviews with Spanish Civil war veterans Sam Wild and Bessie Berry & Bernard McKenna (all Communists)

Spanish Civil War booklet 3rd edition:  Price £4.60/€5.00 post included, cheques payable to 'Tameside Trade Union Council' from c/o 46, Kingsland Road, Rochdale, Lancs.  OL11 3HQ.

To read comments received about this publication, please click through the 'Read more' link below:

(Donovan Pedelty's comments to the editor about his preface of the third edition):

A few comments on a fine new edition, mainly on your new preface targeting the professional historians:

My reaction to your animadversions on Paul Preston is that you are much too gentle, a view reinforced by reading Dave Chapple’s contribution. The mantle of objectivity Preston assumes, while urbanely rebuking as partisan those who paint a different picture of the Spanish tragedy, deserves derision. What warrants respect, even when there may not be assent, is frank admission that there is no such thing as an objective account of events: the best one can ask for is an uncamouflaged viewpoint and an honest uncensored report of what the observer thinks he sees. That’s what I got from my recent rereading of Homage to Catalonia, and that’s what I so admire about Orwell. I never feel he’s claiming to know or to understand more than he has reason to think he probably does. Professional historians may congratulate themselves on having the perspective given by hindsight, but they may also too easily discount eyewitness reportage, and the only match for Orwell’s book I know of is the one he himself said was the best book on the Spanish situation he knew, Franz Borkenau’s The Spanish Cockpit. As for the clarity of Preston’s mindsight and the soundness of his judgment, this may be an oblique comment, but I have just read a book (it’s on OUP’s ‘Very Short Introduction’ list) by his protégée Helen Graham which he calls “far and away the best short introduction to the Spanish Civil War.” Well it has some good things in it and is worth reading, but how about this sentence, on p.104, (singled out by me as characterising her stance) for undermining one’s own credibility? “The second great tension in the wartime political life of the Republic was the growing rift between Spanish socialists and communists – the two mass movements sustaining the war effort.” [My italics]

I can’t make up my mind whether or not there is irony (and if so how much) in your description of Preston as “an able historian”, since, having flattered him you subject him to quite a drubbing. In fact the more I look back at your preface, the more telling I find it. Anyway, my insufficiently considered initial reaction may serve to hang this suggestion on. We are all too well aware of the damage done to people’s mindsets (especially when it comes to questions of the possible versus the ‘inconceivable’) by perpetual subjection to ‘accepted’ accounts of events. And that’s true in spades when it comes to the Spanish tragedy.


Northern Voices said...

Further thoughts from Don Pedelty to editor of SPANISH CIVIL WAR COMMEMORATIVE BOOKLET

At the end of your ‘Rural Spain in Crisis’ article you refer to the landslide victory of the Right in the November 1933 elections. What you don’t say is that the CNT leadership, as well as the FAI, called on their followers to adhere to anarchist principles and boycott the poll, whereas in the 1936 elections which led to the government against which the ‘Francoist’ military insurrection occurred they left the question of whether or not to participate in the poll to the discretion of rank-and-file members.

I despair of getting fellow anarchists to see the wisdom of always taking tactical and pragmatic decisions on questions of voting, but I contend that that bit of Spanish history makes the case for me in spades! For anyone rejecting representation (as distinct from delegation without ultimate decision-making powers) as a principle, a vote does not amount to the endorsement of any person’s or party’s policy: it is no more than an expression of preference, for this moment and for whatever reason. True, it might involve compromise with free decision-making rights, but then so do countless other actions one takes which are inescapable in reaching a modus vivendi in a society which does not operate in accordance with one’s principles.

Participation in government – as distinct from some degree of involuntary collaboration with it – is something else of course, and undeniably it transgresses anarchist principles. For all that, my view is that anarchists not faced with the desperate situation confronting our comrades in Spain in those times frequently fall short in understanding and are two harsh in their judgment of some of the decisions taken by anarcho-syndicalist leaders.


Sarah Irving said...

For interviews on some of Greater Manchester's Spanish Civil War veterans, see and