Saturday, June 25, 2011

Spain and the World : Aspects of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (6)

Barcelona May 1937 : a contemporary view

The article below was written in May 1937 and published in the weekly periodical New Statesman and Nation (NSN). In many ways it is an extraordinary piece of political writing, firstly because of who the writer is and secondly that it should appear in the NSN.

Liston Oak was a member of the American Communist party and in 1936 went to Moscow to work on the English language daily Moscow News. While awaiting clearance for the post he went to Paris. For reasons that are not clear he used his contacts with the Comintern (Communist International) to move on to another job based in the offices of the foreign minister of the Spanish Republic, Alvarez del Vayo. Del Vayo was in charge of propaganda in the English speaking world and Oak was to be the Director of Propaganda for Britain and the United States. Part of his responsibility was to chaperone leading celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway around. Oak was therefore a committed communist and an apparatchik of the Comintern. He went to Valencia at the beginning of 1937, but quickly moved on to a new office that was opened in Barcelona. It seems highly likely that Oak knew what was happening, that is the disappearances and assassinations, and that the intrigues against the anarchists and the POUM were leading to a full scale assault. In fact Oak did something that was extraordinary considering his politics: he went to interview Andres Nin, the leader of the POUM, not once but twice! This would have marked him and meant his life would be in danger. Oak was aware of the situation and made plans to escape from Spain.

Another American writer who was in Spain at this time was John Dos Passos. He was in Spain for the same reason as Hemingway, to contribute in the making of the film Spanish Earth. Oak and Dos Passos know each other, as
Oak had accompanied Dos Passos on a fact finding tour of a miners’ strike in Harlan County in the early 1930s. Oak made contact with Dos Passos while in Barcelona and became his personal secretary for the day that Dos Passos left Spain in a Government chauffeured car in the last days of April 1937.

We can only speculate on what happened next, but Oak obviously rejected his communist politics and viewed the May events more openly and critically, based on his experience. Oak's piece was published on 15 May 1937 - over a week after the fighting of the May Days of 1937 had ended with the defeat of the CNT and POUM, and strengthened the position of both the state and the communist party. Interestingly in the weeks following publication no letters were published commenting either way on Oak's article. However in the two following issues of NSN H. N. Brailsford, NSN staff writer and fellow traveller, wrote two long articles about Spain, singing the praises of the Popular Front and condemning the anarchists and the POUM. Orwell returned from Spain at the end of June 1937 and because of his associations with the POUM NSN did not publish anything that he wrote on Spain.
Dale Evans
June 2011

[Biographical details on Liston Oak compiled from The Breaking Point : Hemingway, Dos Passos and the murder of Jose Robles, by Stephen Koch, Counterpoint, New York 2005]


[We publish this article as an interesting interpretation of the situation in Barcelona by an American journalist who has been working in Spain for the Valencia Government. He expresses his own point of view which is not necessarily ours. – Ed., N.S. & N.]

Recruiting poster for the militias
The Anarchists waited too long. If they had struck nine months ago, or even three months ago, they would have been able to capture power. After the Fascist rebellion was defeated in Catalonia last July – credit for which belongs primarily to the Anarchists, then the strongest and best armed workers’ organisation in all of Spain – they might have entrenched themselves impregnably in positions of power in the Government, in the army and in the police force. But now the coalition of Communists, Socialists, and Left Republicans has grown too strong for them.
      Behind Barcelona barricades thrown up by the militant members of the C.N.T. or General Confederation of Labour, there are deep conflicts whose origins antedate the Spanish Civil War and Revolution. The traditional Anarchist opposition to the traditional state persists despite their participation in the Barcelona and Valencia Governments. Paradoxically they now demand greater representation in the government of Catalonia, the Generalitat.
      But more important is the Anarchist demand that the social revolution which began with the defeat of the rebels in half of Spain, be carried forward. To the slogan of the P.S.U.C. or United Socialist Party of Catalonia, and the Left Republicans – “Democracy versus Fascism” – Anarchists oppose the slogan “Libertarian Communism versus Fascism.” , Their posters proclaim: “Win the war and make the revolution,” and “The war and the revolution are indivisible.”
      Those who call the Government of loyal republican Spain a “Red dictatorship” are quite mistaken. If it were really “red”, the Anarchists would not now be fighting in the streets of Barcelona. The Generalitat is not a workers’ government and it is not revolutionary. The political parties dominating it are entirely sincere when they proclaim to the democratic world that they seek, not Socialism, but “a democratic republic of a new type,” meaning evidently a reformed capitalism somewhat like the Social Democratic Scandinavian countries, or perhaps Mexico, with Left workers’ parties participating in a progressive anti-Fascist coalition government with “bourgeois” parties. Certainly no party n Spain at the moment seeks to establish there a dictatorship such as that of Soviet Russia – least of all the “Socialist” Spanish Communist Party.
      The rivalry between the C.N.T. led by the F.A.I. or Federation of Iberian Anarchists, and the other Trades Union, the U.G.T., dominated by the Communists and Socialists, is almost as old as the dispute between Bakunin and Marx. Long before the July rebellion they hated one another bitterly and violent clashes were of frequent occurrence. During the past nine months of civil war there have been numerous armed fights, particularly in the smaller towns and villages. The question of collectivisation of agriculture loomed large in this feud. News of these “riots” was not often printed in the Spanish newspapers and it was, of course, censored in the despatches of foreign correspondents.
      The Communists, Socialists and Left Republicans not only oppose collectivisation of any more farms and factories; they demand that the Anarchist militias become part of the regular republican army under a single command and that the Anarchist-controlled Workers’ Patrols be dissolved in favour of a regular “non-political” police force. Further, they demand that the Anarchist workers in the rearguard surrender their arms, needed at the front. They demand the dissolution of the Workers’ Committees which have controlled the factories and collectivised farms – something like the Russian Soviets prior to the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution – constituting a dual power.
      These demands were a challenge to the Anarchists. They are supported and to some extent inspired by the so-called Trotskyist P.O.U.M. which split away from the Comintern in opposition to “Stalinism.” They are opposed by all other Spanish organisations.
      The P.S.U.C., which now has a membership of 60,000, is affiliated with the Comintern. When it was formed a year ago by the merger of the Catalonian Communist and Socialist Parties, the Communists numbered only about 250. These figures indicate the growth of Communist influence in Catalonia – and throughout Spain. Aid from Russia and from Communist Parties throughout the world has enabled them to gain enough power to throw down their ultimatum to the Anarchists – and the result was street fighting in Barcelona.
      I left Barcelona the day before the fighting began, after four months in Spain, three of which were spent working for the Valencia Government. I profoundly regret anything which weakens the anti-Fascist united front, but I cannot agree with the official version of events which makes the Anarchists the villains of the plot. The common conception of an Anarchist as a wild irresponsible hooligan is as far from the reality as the same conception of a Bolshevik some years ago. In fact the Anarchist is, strangely, the nearest approach to a Bolshevik to be found in Spain to-day, except possibly for the P.O.U.M. Communists. But unfortunately they have no Lenin – not even a leader of the calibre of Trotsky or Stalin.

Leadership of the POUM, Andres Nin is 2nd from right
       The Anarchists fear that behind the Communist-Socialist-Left Republican programme for a regular republican army and police force under a single command and one flag – not the red or the red and black flag and not the Catalonian flag, but the flag of republican Spain – and behind the opposition to the completion of the proletarian revolution, there is a plan to eliminate them from the Spanish scene. They charge that the “Stalinists” have organised a G.P.U. in Spain controlled from Moscow. They point to the imprisonment recently of the Anarchist Morato, who is now on hunger strike, and to the jailing of dozens of other Anarchists on one pretext or other of disobedience to the decrees of the Government, in Murcia, Lerida and elsewhere. They protest against the suppression of Anarchist newspapers. They point to the exclusion of the C.N.T.-F.A.I. from the Basque Government and the imprisonment of numerous Anarchists in Bilbao. And they remember that in Soviet Russia the Anarchists were long since “liquidated.”
      Hence for months Barcelona has been an armed camp, although the casual visitor would not suspect it. The “united front” with the other parties has been only an armed truce necessitated by the war against the Fascists... A few weeks ago the Communists raided the Anarchist arsenal and stole seven tanks... A few days before I left Barcelona there was a gigantic funeral procession for Roldan Cortada, Communist leader of the U.G.T., assassinated by an Anarchist or, more probably, by an agent provocateur. Banners demanded revenge. The next day an Anarchist was assassinated... I interviewed Luis Companvs, president of the Generalitat, and predicted an armed clash. He laughed scornfully and said the Anarchists would capitulate as they always had before.
      It was too late for compromise; the inevitable irrepressible conflict occurred and has evidently been suppressed since I left Barcelona. But the fighting is not over. There will be further compromise “solutions” which solve none of the basic issues, and further crises and armed conflict.
      The Barcelona and Valencia Governments have been partially paralysed from their beginnings by these conflicts and by the rivalries of the constituent organisations of the People’s Front Government. Their effectiveness on the military field as well as on the economic and political fields has been crippled by recurrent crises. Malaga, like Toledo and other cities, was practically handed over to Franco’s forces. All has been quiet on the Aragon front, key to winning the war, because the Government dared not give the Anarchists and the P.O.U.M. militiamen too many machine-guns.
      After the fall of Malaga, General Asencio and Colonel Villalba were removed from the War Ministry because they sabotaged the defence of that city. But the leaders of the C.N.T. and the P.O.U.M. charge that there are still many Generals and others occupying high positions who are counter-revolutionists, secretly in sympathy with the Fascists. They demand the removal of all such anti-proletarian officials. They demand a thoroughly proletarian revolutionary cleansed of doubtful “bourgeois” elements,” and they want working-class control of the army and police, and of factories and farms.
      If you are puzzled as to why the Communists and Socialists join with the Left Republican and Catalonian Nationalists in opposing such a revolutionary programme, the Anarchists and the P.O.U.M. will answer that the politics of both the Second and Third Internationals are no longer revolutionary, but reformist and social democratic. They will tell you that the Comintern has long since abandoned its hopes for a world revolution – until after the world war they are sure is on the horizon. The Spanish Communist Party has become an instrument of the Soviet Foreign Office.
      The Soviet Government, they maintain, and hence the Comintern, under the Stalinist dictatorship, want no revolution in Spain or anywhere else at present for fear it would weaken the chances of a military alliance with England as with France. Soviet Russia seeks security and will sacrifice the Spanish Revolution because Anglo-French imperialism demands it as the price of possible military aid to Russia against German-Italian-Japanese aggression, Andres Nin, P.O.U.M. leader, told me last week. He said that the only hope of saving the Spanish Revolution lies in an acceptance by the Anarchists of a Bolshevik line of action. That hope seems dim; however fine their revolutionary spirit the Anarchists have an implacable hatred of Marxism and Leninism.
      Their lack of political clarity, the absence of any common political policy whatever, plus their hatred of discipline and dictatorship, weaken them in a struggle for power against a party which is as highly disciplined as an army and knows exactly what it wants and how to get it.
      It is indeed fortunate that there is even greater friction among the forces under Franco – between Spaniards and Germans and Italians and Moors, between monarchists and Fascists and right republicans. Franco’s military efficiency is also crippled by internal conflicts, and after four months of thinking about it I am convinced the Fascists can never win, despite disunity among the anti-Fascist forces.

1 comment:

  1. Nice! I really enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work.