Gloriously wrong
May 23, 2016 1:25 AM   Subscribe

Patrick Iber reviews Adam Hochschild's account of the Spanish Civil War in The Spain Orwell Never Saw
posted by Joe in Australia (27 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I found Iber's writing here to be on the didactic side and emotionless. It's a pity that he seems to agree with Hochschild's argument that Communist takeover of the Republican movement from groups such as the Anarchists was more pragmatic than anything else.
posted by My Dad at 1:49 AM on May 23, 2016


I can't see any reasons other than knee-jerk contrarianism or Comintern apologetics for saying that this should be read "instead of" Orwell's book.
posted by thelonius at 2:28 AM on May 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


I think it's been a long time since the New Republic was last accused of Comintern apologetics!

I read Homage to Catalonia in a college literature class. I think it's worth reading as a literary work and a primary source document, but it's doing something entirely different than what a historian would do. I'm also kind of curious about what how academic historians are currently interpreting the Spanish Civil War.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:48 AM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Antony Beevor (The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936–39) and Paul Preston are the historians with the most prestige around here. Ian Gibson is more of a biographer.
posted by sukeban at 2:56 AM on May 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Homage to Catalonia is a memoir of what the author experienced, with some political analysis at the end, and it says so right in the first chapter. Of course it's not a general history of the war or an account of, say, what Americans fighting in different parts of the country experienced.
posted by thelonius at 2:57 AM on May 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


Iber seems to be working on a weird false dichotomy of "it wasn't the USSR who caused the Nationalists to win, it was the Nationalists who were illegitimate in the first place!", as though we must pick a single group to judge. You cannot have a strong analysis of history like that. You cannot understand the outcome of the Spanish Civil War without understanding both the monstrosity of the fascist cause and the Soviet effort to placate the West by killing the revolution.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:00 AM on May 23, 2016 [12 favorites]


Hate to be a spoiler but Venezuela seems like a contemporary example of the left winning the Spanish Civil war. We have the glamour of factory sit ins and a nationalised health system. BBC world reported tonight that you have to pay for your own drugs if you want an operation. Toilet paper and nappies can't be bought in the shops.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 3:02 AM on May 23, 2016


Hate to be a spoiler but Venezuela seems like a contemporary example of the left winning the Spanish Civil war.

Oh my god, is this a for-real "at least he made the trains run on time" argument?
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:09 AM on May 23, 2016 [17 favorites]


and a nationalised health system

Ironically, it was the Francoist regime that created the modern Sistema Nacional de Salud in Spain.
posted by sukeban at 3:24 AM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


you can read a (fictional) wrenching yet even-handed account of the fall of the Spanish republic, from a non-Stalinist communist perspective in Peter Weiss's "Aesthetics of Resistance".

If you want to take a sympathetic view of Stalin in Spain (sympathy for the devil) you have to start with the question of "socialism in one country." One odd feature of Anglo-American history of this era is the tendency to edit out or equivocate the fact that stamping out communism was the central goal of pre-WWII "western" foreign policy. At the same time, the victory of Stalin within the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union, meant the effective end of "world revolution" as the actual goal of the Comintern shifting to the defense of the Soviet Union as the bulwark of communism. In short, you can see Stalin's policy in Spain as a pragmatic attempt to defend the Soviet Union as a nation (as versus world communism); a goal towards which the Spanish republic was sacrificed. One of the steps towards the Ribbentrop pact, which forced the West to make Hitler an enemy, rather than accomplice in the "War on Communism."

But, the Bolsheviks were always distinguished as cynical pragmatists as versus more radical and idealist contemporaries even before Stalin. It's only 100 years of propaganda in the US which creates the view that they were wild-eyed radicals bent on world communism. Starting in Spain, the policy of the Soviet Union was built around a conservative defensive viewpoint towards preserving Soviet Union.
posted by ennui.bz at 3:52 AM on May 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


but it's doing something entirely different than what a historian would do.

Yes but Hoschschild is apparently telling the story of 10 foreigners who fought for the Nationalist cause in Spain. So in the end he's not really telling the history of the Spanish Civil war, just documenting the experiences of 10 people who kind of existed outside of events.
posted by My Dad at 5:07 AM on May 23, 2016


“For us it wasn’t Franco,” said one New Yorker quoted by Hochschild, “it was always Hitler.” Anyone know who this was and what they did during the nonaggression pact?
posted by hawthorne at 5:12 AM on May 23, 2016


I don't know, maybe I'm overraeacting to:

With all due respect to Orwell, Spain in Our Hearts should supplant Homage to Catalonia as the best introduction to the conflict written in English.

Or maybe I find the assumption that people will only read 0 or 1 books on the topic maddening.
posted by thelonius at 6:08 AM on May 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


Hate to be a spoiler but Venezuela seems like a contemporary example of the left winning the Spanish Civil war.

Not really. Chavez was the leader of a fairly cohesive left-wing faction, the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War was a loose affiliation of centrists, loyalists, socialists, anarchists and regional groups. A victory for their side would probably have resulted in a re-establishment of the pre-Civil War status quo.

If you want to understand the Stalinist perspective on the Civil War you have to look at post-WWII Yugoslavia. The Soviets were always in a bind: on the one hand, they had ideological reasons to support any revolutionary group who succeeded in establishing a Marxist state, on the other any such state could become a competitor for the ideological position of the USSR as the capital of world revolution. It could become a locus for criticism of the Soviet regime, even, as Maoist China eventually did among some Western left-wing groups.

Any country that could not be directly occupied by the Red Army was potentially a threat rather than an ally. Interwar Spain, therefore, had to be visibly supported - it would be bad optics in terms of the USSR's international standing otherwise - but a genuine victory there by independent leftist groups posed a potential threat. Stalin and his successors understood that such groups were more valuable to them and their regime as martyrs than as victorious rivals.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:40 AM on May 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


The other thing is that Stalin wanted to trade with the West and "guess what? communist revolution in Western Europe!" would've torpedoed that faster than a luxury cruise liner. And of course the dominant orthodoxy among Soviet-supported communist factions (a very high percentage, worldwide, of communist factions in the 30's) was "whatever is best for the USSR is best", and that in practice meant "whatever is best for Stalin is best".
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:00 AM on May 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Honestly, I think the Marxist-Leninists in Spain were sold as much of a bill of goods as anyone else. Obviously, movements directly allied with the USSR were notorious for ideological score-settling, and they were never going to work effectively with the Trots or the Anarchists, but I think many of them, particularly those who joined the International Brigades, genuinely believed that once they had re-organized Republican forces around their command structures, Stalin would rapidly increase the amount and quality of military aid. Of course, he had no intention of doing so, but I doubt even the leadership of the PCE in Spain was fully aware of this.

In Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler alludes to the dismay felt by many Internationalist parties and unions at the apparently contradictory and counter-productive orders coming out of Moscow in the '30s, but few people had any idea about the extent of Stalin's willingness to abandon or even sabotage other movements.

Orwell's book is certainly an account of one man's experience during the war, but he wasn't wrong about Stalin.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:22 AM on May 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


(On a completely unrelated note: good job, Austria! (in this respect (as far as I understand (which is not much, admittedly (and sorry for making every thread about Austria))))).
posted by the quidnunc kid at 7:26 AM on May 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I love these threads... I never know how many mefites have this well of red history.
posted by latkes at 8:06 AM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


For a discussion of five books about the Spanish Civil War.
Spain in My Heart is more a moving account of Americans who volunteered to fight for the Republican side than it is a historical rendering of the war itself, and, as such, is moving and also manages to show how America played neutral but had a number of key citizens who helped the Franco side of the war, including the CEO of Texaco, who not only supplied oil to Franco but also gave intelligence info to the Fascist side.
posted by Postroad at 8:08 AM on May 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


the victory of Stalin within the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union, meant the effective end of "world revolution" as the actual goal of the Comintern shifting to the defense of the Soviet Union as the bulwark of communism

Well, the Bolsheviks were arguably retreating from pursuing a pure strategy of world revolution far before Stalin solidified his power. At the beginning of his tenure as Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Trotsky believed that he would "issue a few revolutionary proclamations to the peoples of the world, and then shut up shop." What use are relations with governments that you want to be (and will soon be, no doubt) overthrown by proletarian revolution, anyway? But, of course, the advancing German army changed that opinion, and a peace treaty was negotiated. A few years later, the Bolsheviks were stabilizing the interstate order to some extent by signing peace treaties with world powers (including some that were actively fighting communists -- Turkey, Persia). Russia also was secretly manufacturing arms for Germany and having its forces trained by the German military several years after the Bolsheviks took power. Of course, when the Bolsheviks truly abandoned the goal of world revolution is a debatable issue.

Incidentally, I don't think that Russia's choices in Spain can be framed as "world revolution" vs "socialism in one country" so much as winning the Spanish Civil War vs losing. The goals of pursuing anarchist social revolution in the countryside, armed forces, etc. were conflicting with the objective of mobilizing the Republican side to win the war. Even Durruti, the anarchist commander, came around to this position eventually with respect to a single, unified command; many anarchists also entered the government. The May Days, the great betrayal in the anarchist/POUM narrative, while lamentable for their factional infighting, were really just one step in the ongoing process of strengthening and centralizing the state apparatus to combat the rebels.

Iber's conclusion is a strange and ahistorical one, in my view: "With the Soviet Union gone, a broad, anti-fascist coalition of liberals and the left—the kind that brought the Spanish Republic to power in the first place—makes good political sense." The fact is that on the Republican side there was a broad, anti-fascist coalition of liberals and the left (certainly, initially); that is how the Soviet Union could participate in the war in the first place. The Popular Front policy that enabled this move had been in place ever since shortly after Hitler took power. The question that Iber's strategy begs is the same on that was an ominous question for the Spanish Republicans: a coalition under whose leadership and behind what strategy? I don't want to follow (for instance) Bob Avakian or Hillary Clinton into battle today, and many of the non-Stalinists found that Russia's help was a double-edged sword. (But we should give the devil his due: the Republicans wouldn't have held on for nearly as long without Stalin's assistance.)
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 11:29 AM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Also, as far as reading recommendations go, I suggest Broué and Témime's The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 11:36 AM on May 23, 2016


Incidentally, I don't think that Russia's choices in Spain can be framed as "world revolution" vs "socialism in one country" so much as winning the Spanish Civil War vs losing. The goals of pursuing anarchist social revolution in the countryside, armed forces, etc. were conflicting with the objective of mobilizing the Republican side to win the war. Even Durruti, the anarchist commander, came around to this position eventually with respect to a single, unified command; many anarchists also entered the government. The May Days, the great betrayal in the anarchist/POUM narrative, while lamentable for their factional infighting, were really just one step in the ongoing process of strengthening and centralizing the state apparatus to combat the rebels.

The fact is that on the Republican side there was a broad, anti-fascist coalition of liberals and the left (certainly, initially); that is how the Soviet Union could participate in the war in the first place. The Popular Front policy that enabled this move had been in place ever since shortly after Hitler took power.


Right, but the "Popular Front" turn was "international," you could say that Spain was sacrificed for the sake of the front in France and the US. Radical politics in Spain were a threat to the "Popular Front" in France because the front depended upon maintaining capitalism in the fight against fascism. But, as finally displayed in the Ribbentrop pact AKA Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The Comintern during this period was defined by Stalin's concerns. It was never about fighting fascism but allowing the Soviet state (and by extension Stalin) to escape the noose being put around it's neck by the Western powers. Spain may have been lost to fascism either way, but as long as the primary interest of the Comintern was to maintain the Soviet Union/Stalin, it could be sacrificed to save Stalin and was without hope.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:13 PM on May 23, 2016


The other thing is that Stalin wanted to trade with the West....

Never heard that before, do you have a cite?
posted by IndigoJones at 12:35 PM on May 23, 2016


But, as finally displayed in the Ribbentrop pact AKA Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.


These are not the same thing.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:49 PM on May 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Right, but the "Popular Front" turn was "international," you could say that Spain was sacrificed for the sake of the front in France and the US. Radical politics in Spain were a threat to the "Popular Front" in France because the front depended upon maintaining capitalism in the fight against fascism.

When you say that Spain (and here I take it you mean the revolution) "was sacrificed" for the sake of the Popular Front, do you believe that the revolution would have been successful had the Communists not intervened? I think the more likely outcome would have been the different left factions would have been at cross-purposes (not that much of a counter-factual since that was happening anyway) and the Republican forces more easily crushed -- hence, revolutionary failure. If that is true, the efforts to consolidate the state look more like a terrible necessity for defense and not an effort of Stalin to aggrandize his position no matter what the cost to others. (In any event, I don't think Russia's activity wrt Spain in this period could be interpreted as an effort to appease European capitalist powers who, after all, were squarely in favor of non-intervention.)

These are not the same thing.

I think (I think?) the point that was being made was that both were necessary compromises of ideological principle for the purpose of survival.

Never heard that before, do you have a cite?

See: Arcos, Amtorg (there are probably equivalents in other countries as well). There were also a bunch of Americans working in the USSR during industrialization (for instance, the elder Koch's exploits have been in the news lately; John Scott's account is also interesting) as the USSR largely lacked the requisite technical expertise.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 7:12 PM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


When you say that Spain (and here I take it you mean the revolution) "was sacrificed" for the sake of the Popular Front, do you believe that the revolution would have been successful had the Communists not intervened? I think the more likely outcome would have been the different left factions would have been at cross-purposes


Well, the Popular Front was a relatively functional government before the coup that was instigated by radical right-wing and pro-clerical elements, primarily within the colonial military structure.

What is meant by "revolution" in this sense is unclear, as the Popular Front contained revolutionary elements, but did not have a revolutionary mandate, while the Falangist/Royalist/Clericalist/Latifundist coalition that made up the Nationalist forces portrayed itself as anti-revolutionary but engaged in the overthrow of a democratically-elected government. I think there might be some confusion of terminology, here.

If anything, the Popular Front was sacrificed for revolution in some larger, international sense, but even that is a bit of a stretch. More realistically, the Popular Front was sacrificed so that the Soviet Union (of which Stalin was, at this point, in many ways the embodiment) could consolidate its position on the world stage.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:45 PM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


When you say that Spain (and here I take it you mean the revolution) "was sacrificed" for the sake of the Popular Front, do you believe that the revolution would have been successful had the Communists not intervened? I think the more likely outcome would have been the different left factions would have been at cross-purposes (not that much of a counter-factual since that was happening anyway) and the Republican forces more easily crushed -- hence, revolutionary failure. If that is true, the efforts to consolidate the state look more like a terrible necessity for defense and not an effort of Stalin to aggrandize his position no matter what the cost to others.

It's less the consolidation that people object to about Stalin's policy in Spain and more the jailing and murdering of leftists who wouldn't toe the Soviet line.


(In any event, I don't think Russia's activity wrt Spain in this period could be interpreted as an effort to appease European capitalist powers who, after all, were squarely in favor of non-intervention.)

His appeasement was not in intervening against the fascists- it was ensuring the incipient revolution in Spain was strangled in its crib.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:15 AM on May 25, 2016


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