[Marxism] Fw: [historicalmaterialism] Seventy Five Years on from the Spanish Revolution.

Paula Paula_cerni at msn.com
Sun Jul 17 10:45:26 MDT 2011

-----Original Message----- 
From: Sébastien Budgen
Sent: Friday, July 15, 2011 5:28 AM
To: historicalmaterialism
Subject: [historicalmaterialism] Seventy Five Years on from the Spanish 

Seventy Five Years on from the Spanish Revolution.

Seventy five year ago – in an era of economic crisis – revolution
erupted in Spain. It was perhaps the most profound of the revolutions
of the twentieth century. In rural areas unions and communities
transformed the organisation of social life. In cities social services
– education, health, transport – were refashioned and extended. The
anarcho-syndicalist CNT union and the socialist UGT union drew in
hundreds of thousands of men and women into militias and internal
security organisations. Hundreds of thousands created collectives,
ousted owners, and dispensed with management. Professionals realised
that workers’ experience was itself a skill, and that no one had the
right to boss around anyone else. Gender relations changed, women
fought at the front, by 1938 Mujeres Libres – Free Women, a
libertarian body close to the CNT – was 20,000 strong. A new society
was created, with a counter-power that had the potential to replace
the state.

This revolution was perhaps inspired by libertarian socialist
perspectives, but it was not an ‘anarchist revolution’. Socialists
joined militias and collectives in their hundreds of thousands, and
even where anarchists were preponderant they rejected a party
dictatorship. This was a workers’ revolution that opened space for
workers, women and men, to build a new society.

The tragedy of this revolution was that Spanish workers were advancing
some twenty or thirty years after their counterparts elsewhere.
Radical workers and socialists – Marxist and libertarians – had been
defeated in Italy, Portugal and in much of Central and Eastern Europe.
Spanish workers revolted, resolving to put up a better fight than
their German counterparts, but they were relatively isolated. The
revolution also opened when Stalin was in complete control in Russia.
The principal, almost the only source of arms for the anti-fascists,
was ‘Stalin’, and Stalin was looking for an alliance with the Britain
or France, or with the Nazis. By 1938, if not earlier, he was
preparing the ground for the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939.
Whatever option he chose, Spain was a distraction and its revolution
was an embarrassment. Spain harboured Stalin’s political enemies,
whose like were being culled and exterminated in the Great Terror.

British perspectives on Spain were influenced by communists, whose
leader, Harry Pollitt, spelt out that: ‘The people of Spain are not
fighting to establish soviets, or the proletarian dictatorship. Only
downright lying scoundrels, or misguided self-styled ‘Lefts’ declare
that they are – and both combine to help the aims of the fascist
rebels.’[i] A generation of left thinkers were influenced this sort of
vitriolic anti-fascist communism and by experiences of work in broad
and popular fronts. This influence has survived into our times. Just
four years ago Eric Hobsbawm, argued that: ‘The only choice was
between two sides, and liberal-democratic opinion overwhelmingly chose
anti-fascism.’[ii] No need then to consider that many, if not most
working people, wanted more out of the revolution.

Hobsbawm invoked Rick, from the film ‘Casablanca’, as his sort of anti-
fascist. Moroccans are seen but not heard. Rick is loved by all –
workers, women and the token black piano-player – he speaks for all –
and no one else can speak for themselves. There are comfortable heroes
and just one way of fighting fascism. History is sanitised.

But such views have always been contested – most notably by George
Orwell. Orwell had seen the revolution at first hand. In May 1937 he
witnessed the assassination of comrades in the POUM and libertarians
like Camillo Berneri[iii] – revolutionaries all hated by ‘Moscow’.
Drawing on direct experience he asserted that: ‘official Communism
must be regarded, at any rate for the time being, as an anti-
revolutionary force.’[iv] One of the tragedies of the left was that
Orwell’s judgement was overlooked, disregarded censored. A generation
of Anglophone socialists had little or no access to texts from other
critical thinkers. Seventy years on Hobsbawm was still pedalling his
view that there was no need to engage with Orwell. He dismissed Orwell
for being unworthy of consideration, writing that no one would publish
him at the time. It was of course CPGB influence that helped prevent
publication of Homage to Catalonia by the Left Book Club. Many of
those who subsequently rejected Stalinism nevertheless continued to be
shaped by such views even as they sought to reconcile democracy and
socialism, and had no love for Orwell.

The re-publication, by the Merlin Press, of José Peirats’s three
volume: The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, goes some way to correct
past imbalances. Peirats does not write sanitised history, his
presentation is ‘warts and all’. Mistakes – the mistakes of
libertarians included – are not hidden. He offers a documentary
history of the CNT focussing on the years 1936 to 1939. His volumes
include extensive quotations from participants in many key debates. He
writes from direct experience, remembering his own participation in
events he describes. His documentation, collected from the activists
in and around the CNT, is the best available source exploring the CNT,
the anarchist movement and the left as it developed and interacted in
the twenty year period that ended with the defeat of the Spanish
revolution in March 1939. Paul Preston has written about Peirats that
his work is “A landmark in the historiography of the Spanish
revolution” and that is “an obligatory purchase for any serious
university library and indeed for all those interested in the history
of both the Spanish Civil War and of anarchism in the twentieth

  Peirats documents Spanish debates and controversies but his concerns
may resonate in other places and in the history of other times:

·       How did specific organisations – parties if you will – relate
to unions?
·       On what terms, in which forms, and for what ends were
alliances formed?
·       What were the strategies adopted? How were these strategies

Socialists are still asking how socialism can best be promoted, and
what should be done both short of a revolution, and/or in some more
thorough process of change.[v]

A reading of these texts on the Spanish revolution may suggest that
radical coalitions need to be accountable and should promote mass
participation in decision making. Mass participation in the present
prefigures the sort of society that socialists wish to create in the
future. Such forms are counterpoints to revolutions bound by ‘iron
discipline’ and hierarchy. Real change is social, and not only
‘political’; and the transitions – albeit incomplete transitions –
begun in the Spanish revolution witness to the capacity of working
people to construct their own forms and structures of counter-power.

A W Zurbrugg, The Merlin Press.

Jose Peirats, The CNT in the Spanish Revolution: [Three volumes] will
be available shortly from the Merlin Press http://www.merlinpress.co.uk/

In North America it is published by PM Press,

[i] International Press Correspondence, 8.8.1936, quoted in Burnett
Bolleten, The Spanish Revolution: The Left and the Struggle for Power
during the Civil War, University of North Carolina Press, 1979, p. 90.
[ii] The Guardian, (London) February 17, 2007.
[iii] Berneri had suggested that action should be taken to stir up
Morocco and to destabilise the fascist rear.
[iv] George Orwell, Orwell on Spain, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001, p.
[v] This volume includes proposals for a participatory workers’
alliance, set out by Valeriano Orobón Fernandez. On contemporary
revolutionary socialism see for example Michael A. Lebowitz, The
Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development, New York: Monthly
Review, 2010.


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