Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Spain and the World ; Aspects of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (7)

Eric Hobsbawm and the politics of writing history

Examining the writings of historian Eric Hobsbawm it is easy to discern a theme that consistently runs through his writings on the Spanish Civil War (SCW), that is that the Spanish republic had to be defended first, that the revolution had to be thwarted to carry out this aim, and lastly that the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) was the only organisation capable of carrying through this task.(1) However what is not laid bare for the reader is how much of Hobsbawm's personal political opinions lead to his analysis of the the SCW. And secondly that Hobsbawm constructs an historiography that always engages and dismisses at the same time an alternative view of history, that from an anarchist or libertarian tradition.

The Background
In 1959 the book Primitive Rebels (PR) was published. It is Hobsbawm's history of movements, criminals, and social banditry that represent naive, backward, and most importantly unorganised attempts at social revolution. Chapter 5 of the book examines the history of peasant anarchism in Andalusia
from the middle of the 19th century to the early 20th, Spanish peasant anarchism, Hobsbawm argues, lacks all of the necessary prerequisites for a successful revolution. This is because when considering its mode of thinking, the absence of theory, its organisation, and the social class of its adherents, these factors brought all together indicate failure at the outset. Of course underlying the problems of this movement is simply that Marxist communists were not present. In the conclusion he writes:

"Classical anarchism is thus a form of peasant movement almost incapable of effective adaptation to modern conditions, though it is their outcome. Had a different ideology penetrated the Andalusian countryside in the 1870s it might have transformed the spontaneous and unstable rebelliousness of the peasants into something far more formidable, because more disciplined, as communism has sometimes succeeded in doing. This did not happen. And thus the history of anarchism, almost alone among modern social movements, is one of unrelieved failure; and unless some unforeseen historical changes occur, it is likely to go down in the books with the Anabaptists and the rest of the prophets who, though not armed, did not know what to do with their arms, and were defeated for ever."(2) (My italics.)
There are many issues arising from such a statement. I shall look at the most important. Firstly Hobsbawm uses his close examination of peasant anarchism to actually castigate the whole history of Spanish anarchism. Indeed in 1986 Hobsbawm makes it markedly clear that the whole book is an attack on anarchism and libertarianism: "If you read Primitive Rebels you will see that there is, so to speak, a subtext which is a polemic against anarchism and libertarianism, or against the kind of movements which deny the force of organisation."(3) In PR he also fails to elucidate that communists then, and later, were unwilling to organise or propagandise among peasants, a class that must always follow the lead of the industrialised working class. This was emphasized by all Marxist theoreticians of the Second and Third Internationals. The peasantry is a class leftover from feudal times, it is not a true class of the capitalist era. Of course here, there is the stress on the Marxist philosophy of history. Previous egalitarians - Anabaptists - failed, they lived in the wrong epoch in the schema of historical materialism. For Marxism all precapitalist egalitarian movements failed as a consequence of residing in the wrong epoch and also their remnants will fail in the modern capitalist era. A natural corollary of this is how Marxism transforms all early egalitarians into pertinent members of its own tradition, see for example their writings on Gerard Winstanley and Thomas Spence or Shelley. (4) Aspects of the peasant anarchism ideology were millenarian, i.e. the belief that after the day of the uprising against the oppressors, perfection, total equality, and freedom would reign. It is the idea that is similar to the second coming of Christ that was the cornerstone of millenarian thinking of the middle ages. Hobsbawm thus links the Anabaptists, the millenarian movement of the 16th century, who were crushed, with peasant anarchism to emphasize the naïvety of peasant anarchism and as an idiopathic cause of their failure. However as Bookchin points out: 'But granting the cycles of periodic uprising and decline, the agrarian movement in the south had a solid economic core that accounts for its continual revival in the face of unfavourable odds...What doomed the agrarian movement of the period was not the impracticability of its visions but its isolation'. (5)
The Spanish Civil War
In an essay written in 1966 for New Left Review Hobsbawm further analyses the themes initiated in PR. The major theme of this essay is that whatever the Spanish socialists and communists contributed to undermining the Spanish revolution (after the fall of the monarchy), the main culprit in the revolution's failure was the anarchists. Again, to repeat, the anarchists had no revolutionary theory, consistently exhausted themselves in pointless uprisings, anarchist terrorism in Barcelona constituted no more than a police problem, and their militias in the Spanish Civil War (SCW) were militarily ineffective. And he pronounces on the Spanish Communist Party, without examining the social constitution of their membership, their policies and actions, reasons for their rapid growth after 1936: 'The communists, whose policy was the one which could have won the war, gained strength too late and never satisfactorily overcame the handicap of their original lack of mass support'. (6) Lastly he then examines instances of modern revolutions and reasons for their failure or success, and necessarily that anarchists will fail. This essay was republished 1973 in the book Revolutionaries and juxtaposed with two other chapters on anarchism. What is made clear is the politics of the whole book: 'My point is to explain why the revival in interest in anarchism today seems so unexpected, surprising and - if I am to speak frankly - unjustified.' (7) In a sense it seems that Hobsbawm is speaking to the student and revolutionary movement in the 1970s and his message is thoroughly political. In fact it could be argued that Hobsbawm's project on the 20th century history is entirely political, where he, the historian, cannot divorce himself from Hobsbawm the communist.

The final part of Hobsbawm's tetralogy on modern history that begins with the Age of Revolution was published in 1994, The Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century. (8) In it he gives the usual potted history of the SCW with all the usual culprits, villains, and heroes. The book ignores all sources that do not fit into Hobsbawm's view that the defence of democracy organised by the Spanish Communist Party was the only way to win the war. We hear nothing about the terror inaugurated by the communists in the Republican zone; the May days in Barcelona; the military incompetence of Soviet advisers; the lack of arms for certain fronts; the Soviet Union's hold on the Republic's gold reserves; the success of collectivization in the cities, towns and villages, the failure of the left to build a constructive alliance. Anarchists are now ‘ultra-left’. Even for a marxist this is an abuse of the term. Ultra-left means outside and beyond the movement. In Spain the largest section of the labour movement was anarcho-syndicalist, how can the anarchists be the ultra-left!? This rather standard account of the SCW set in the context of the struggles of the 1930s and appeasement shows a Hobsbawm who is plodding along, ignoring anything that could refresh his ideas and lead him to be self-reflective. Yet again, his voice is led by his politics.

By 2007 Hobsbawm alters his method of attack. Writing on the intellectuals and the SCW he attempts to turn the tide against the influence of George Orwell. (9) The majority of British intellectuals, writers, artists supported the Spanish Republic, and some fought with the International Brigades. This group were unwavering in their support and in general did not criticise the communists, or anything that would hinder the republic's cause; a blanket of silence fell on those who returned from Spain. To voice concerns was to help the fascists. George Orwell, who had fought for the POUM (10) brigades and who found himself chased out of Spain after the May Days in Barcelona in 1937, was rejected by his publishers on his return. His attempts to write and publish accounts critical of the communist conduct of the war were thwarted. Hobsbawm again gives only the partial truth, Orwell was vilified by British communists and International Brigaders and has been to this very day. (11) The fact is that supporters of the Popular Front then and now present the SCW as only a fight for democracy, support of the Popular Front was paramount. In Britain during the SCW, mention of the Spanish revolution and its battle with communism was not allowed by the left. However Hobsbawm faced with overwhelming evidence of the negative role of communism in the SCW must as a historian relent at least a little bit:
"The conflict between libertarian enthusiasm and disciplined organisation, between social revolution and winning a war, remains real in the Spanish civil war, even if we suppose the USSR and the Communist party wanted the war to end in revolution and that the parts of the economy socialised by the anarchists (i.e. handed over to local workers' control) worked well enough. Wars, however flexible the chains of command, cannot be fought, or war economies run, in a libertarian fashion. The Spanish civil war could not have been waged, let alone won, along Orwellian lines..."

"Moral revulsion against Stalinism and the behaviour of its agents in Spain is justified. It is right to criticise the communist conviction that the only revolution that counted was one that brought the party a monopoly of power. And yet these considerations are not central to the problem of the civil war. Marx would have had to confront Bakunin even if all on the republican side had been angels." (12)
This brief analysis from a libertarian perspective shows that the emeritus historian Eric Hobsbawm has consistently looked to Spanish Anarchism as the major reason for the loss of the SCW to Franco's fascists. It was a backward movement in a backward country. That Spanish Anarchism embodied the revolutionary traditions of that country and represented the majority of socialists and revolutionaries holds no sway for Hobsbawm. He refuses to take on board more recent histories that examine the role of communism in Spain and its impact on the crisis in the Republic. His closeness to the subject - as someone who was influenced by the euphoria of the 1930s - and also his consistent support of 20th century communist politics, in particular the Popular Fronts and Eurocommunism means that his historical analysis of Spain is riven with bias. For us the danger is that Hobsbawm is a writer with selling power and his message has volumes of credence that drowns out any other view.

Dale Evans, August 2011

(1) The idea for this piece on Hobsbawm came from a re-reading of Noam Chomsky's classic essay originally published in 1969 'Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship', in particular where he writes [The] ...predominantly anarchist revolution and the massive social transformation to which it gave rise are treated, in recent historical studies, as a kind of aberration, a nuisance that stood in the way of successful prosecution of the war to save the bourgeois from the Franco rebellion. Many historians would probably agree with Eric Hobsbawm that the failure of social revolution in Spain "was due to the anarchists," that anarchism was a "disaster" a kind of "moral gymnastics" with no "concrete results"at best "a profoundly moving spectacle for the student of popular religion".' Page 43 in Chomsky on Anarchism, AK 2005. As you will see Hobsbawm's ideas are set in stone.

(2) Hobsbawm, E J (1959) Primitive Rebels p92

(3) Hobsbawm, E J (1986, November) Marxism Today p23

(4) For example Christopher Hill's writings on Gerard Winstanley, M Ashraf, The Life and Times of Thomas Spence 1982, and Paul Foot on Shelley

(5) Bookchin, M (1977) The Spanish Anarchists p96

(6) Hobsbawm, E J (1973) Revolutionaries p78

(7) ibid p84

(8) This book was incredibly well received by other professional historians and the left. Criticism tended to focus on the book's Eurocentrism, Hobsbawm methods of periodisation, and the absence of the working class in his narrative. It was also pointed out that the book does not fit comfortably with the other 3 volumes of the tetralogy because of Hobsbawm's closeness to the subject and the autobiographical nature of some of his analysis. It must also be stressed that the book looks at the 20th century from the point of view of the complete dominance of its history by the Russia Revolution. The Spanish Revolution becomes merely a subset in this overall scheme. Marxist reviewers of the book tend to support this approach. New Left Review's review by Goran Therborn is completely uncritical, and embarrassingly it borders on the hagiographical (see New Left Review 214, 1995, 'The autobiography of the 20th Century). In all the reviews that I have read none examine Hobsbawm's view of Spain and mention his condemnation of other socialist and revolutionary traditions

(9) Hobsbawm E J (2007) 'War of Ideas' The Guardian 17 February. Hobsbawm also has a dig at Orwell in his latest book How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840-2011: see page 297 where Hobsbawm makes clear his continued support of Popular Frontism and the necessity for the Left's support for Spain alongside the isolation of George Orwell.

(10) Orwell, G (1966) Homage to Catalonia

(11) On his return from Spain Orwell’s book on Spain was rejected by his publisher, Gollancz. Kingsley Martin editor of the New Statesman and Nation rejected his articles on Spain, and he was continuously vilified by the communists. Orwell wrote 'Gollancz of course is part of the Communist racket, and as soon as he heard that I had been associated with the POUM and anarchists ...he said he did not think he would be able to publish my book' and '...the N.S. having previously refused an article of mine after the suppression of the POUM on the ground that it would "cause trouble", also refused to print the review [of the Spanish Cockpit by Borkenau] as it "controverted editorial policy" or in other words blew the gaff on the Communist Party' and 'Incidentally the Daily Worker has been following me personally with the most filthy libels, calling me pro-fascist etc., but I asked Gollancz to silence them.'

All quotes from The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 1: An Age Like This 1920-1940, Penguin 1970, pages 312, 314 and 319. Attacks on Orwell from communists have continued since, in particular the commander of the British International Brigade Bill Alexander, see his 'George Orwell and Spain' in Inside the Myth, Orwell: Views From the Left, Lawrence and Wishart 1984.

(12) 'War of Ideas' Eric Hobsbawm, The Guardian 17 February 2007. In this article Hobsbawm also calls Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom sectarian.

Sources used

Bookchin, Murrary (1978) The Spanish Anarchists : the Heroic Years 1868-1936, Harper Colophon

Chomsky, N (2005, [1969]) 'Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship' in Chomsky on Anarchism, AK Press

Duncan, Martha Grace (1988) 'Spanish Anarchism Refracted: Theme and Image in the Millenarian and Revisionist Literature', Journal of Contemporary History 23(3) pp323-346

Hobsbawm, Eric (1959) Primitive Rebels : Studies in Archaic forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Manchester University Press

Hobsbawm, Eric (1966) 'The Spanish Background', New Left Review no 40. [republished in Revolutionaries below]

Hobsbawm, Eric (1973) Revolutionaries, Quartet

Hobsbawm, Eric (1994) Age of Extremes : The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, Michael Joseph

Hobsbawm, Eric (2007) 'The War of Ideas', The Guardian, 17 February

Hobsbawm, Eric (2011) How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840 - 2011, Little Brown.

Other chapters in this pamphlet : click on the links

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