Monday, 16 September 2013

Considering the Spanish Civil War

IN July 2011, I shared a platform with Lewis Mates and a local historian who was attached to the International Brigade Memorial Trust at an event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War in Newcastle.  Lewis has written a book about the volunteers from the North East who served in the International Brigade in Spain in the 1930s or fought in the Spanish Civil War in a militia, and has studied extensively that period of history.  Last week, in an e-mail responding to my review of  Professor Preston's book The Spanish Holocaust, he writes:  '... thanks for this Brian; interesting, but I'd have liked to see a closer examination of Preston's treatment of the anarchists; his account focuses heavily on the CNT-FAI killings in the republican zone and the Communists hardly get a mention...' 

The problem with what he is requesting here is that though Preston's treatment of the Spanish anarchists is probably skewed against both the CNT trade union and FAI political organisation, it is not Preston's central argument which is about the parallels between the Spanish right and the Great  dictators of Europe.  Another problem is that some Spaniish anarchists did behave badly in the Spanish Civil War, and that this has been acknowledged by Stuart Christie among others since Preston's book appeared.  
If one wanted to put the conduct of some Spanish anarchists into proportion we could do worse than turn to the sociologist Dr. Franz Borkenau's book The Spanish Cockpit to get a more balanced grasp of the nature of the Spanish war in  a Spanish context: often, it seems to me, that some writers demonstrate a degree of Hispanic-phobia when dealing with the Spanish Civil War.  Borkenau went to Spain with the intention of doing some 'field work' on a country in revolution; he made two trips, the first in August 1936, and the second in January 1937.  It may be of interest for Mr. Mates to consider the contrast between the two visits:  in August the Government was almost powerless, local collectives were functioning and factories had been taken over by their workers, and the Anarchists were the main revolutionary force; and as George Orwell writes in his review published in a French journal of Borkenau's book:
'as a result everything was in terrible chaos, the churches were still smouldering and suspected Fascists were being shot in large numbers, but there was everywhere a belief in the revolution, a feeling that the bondage of centuries had been broken'.   (The New Statesman had refused to publish this Orwell review as being against editorial policy).
Come January 1937, power had passed to a greater extent from the Anarchists to the Communists - though not so much as later in the war, and it seemed that the Communists were bringing back the pre-revolutionary police forces, and political espionage on the republican side was developing.  Borkenau himself was soon imprisoned, but luckily for him, unlike Orwell and others, he managed to to save his documents.   
Borkenau describes the position as Spain fell under Communist control in January/ February 1937 as follows:
'It is at present impossible … to discuss openly even the basic facts of the political situation.  The fight between the revolutionary and non-revolutionary principle, as embodied in Anarchists and Communists respectively, is inevitable, because fire and water cannot mix …  But as the Press is not even allowed to mention it, nobody is fully aware of the position, and the political antagonism breaks through, not in open fight to win over public opinion, but in backstairs intrigues, assassinations by Anarchist bravos, legal assassinations by Communist police, subdued allusions, rumours ….  The concealment of the main political facts from the public and the maintenance of this deception by means of censorship and terrorism carries with it far-reaching detrimental effects, which will be felt in the future even more than at present.' 
Mr. Borkenau is not a revolutionary and he may even welcome a more orderly regime, but what he objects to is the arrival of the police spies as the Communists begin to gain influence over the Spamish and Catalan Governments, the lack of transparency, the censorship and the concealment of what was going on on the republican side.  We can all recognise this even in the tin-pot politics of the British left, nay especially there in those hole-in-the-corner parties and what Orwell, in another context, called 'the smelly little orthodoxies'.

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