The ease with which Paul Preston, ably assisted by Andrew Marr, was allowed to dismiss the role played by anarchists during the Spanish Civil War on yesterday’s edition of Start the Week was infuriating but entirely predictable.
It seems that Professor Preston has carved himself a niche as the ‘expert of choice’ regarding this particular period of Spanish history but love him or loathe him, it surely goes without saying that one person cannot be the repository of all knowledge on any subject. What’s more, whether Preston likes it or not, anarchism has a significant history in Spain, which cannot simply be dismissed or ignored because it does not fit with the narrative he wishes to construct.
Meanwhile, although the historian is duty bound to approach every source with a questioning eye, Professor Preston’s apparent vendetta against Orwell and Homage to Catalonia rather smacks of sour grapes. Whatever his apparent gravitas on the subject of the Spanish Civil War, the fact remains that he was not there and, however briefly, Orwell was. Even if his account of events is flawed, explain why, but don’t just dismiss it because you don’t like what it says or because you wish you’d written it.
Despite the suggestion in Preston’s narrative that the anarchists were all about chaos, destruction and murder (a rather tedious recurring stereotype in both his own version of events and the wider picture of this ideology painted by the BBC), what he fails to mention is that anarchists were often defending a grassroots libertarianism and self-sufficiency already established in many Spanish communities, urban and rural. That there were atrocities committed is not in doubt but this was a conflict of atrocities on all sides, with the anarchists being perhaps only unique in that they were a target of choice for both Franco’s Nationalists, with their curiously Catholic brand of fascism AND the Republicans, whose desire to free Spain from authoritarianism propelled them into the open arms of the authoritarian’s authoritarian, good old Uncle Joe.
When she returned from her time in Spain during the Civil War, the Scottish anarchist, Ethel MacDonald, had witnessed first-hand the purges, imprisonments and murders of anarchists but struggled to get their story heard, as JT Caldwell recorded in his 1988 biography of Guy Aldred:
When Ethel returned to Glasgow she spoke in McLellan Galleries on ‘Spain: A Lost Horizon’. She told the story of the Communists’ attack on the anarcho-syndicalists. It was a very stormy meeting and there were several ejections. The uninitiated were confused. They did not know that, if the ghost of Marx haunted Central Europe, Bakunin and Proudhon had their own domain in the south of the continent, and the old authoritarian spirit was still afraid of them.
One thing Professor Preston cannot claim to be is ‘the uninitiated’ and probably has access to more resources on the Spanish Civil War that most of us. All the more worrying, therefore, that he chooses to cherry-pick some over others to create his own version of events. That Andrew Marr then chooses to sycophantically promulgate this view with tired stereotypes, instead of undertaking the job he is paid handsomely for and facilitating a balanced discussion, is irritating but sadly, no more than is expected from the BBC.
Could it be that the old authoritarian spirit is still afraid?