Arts & Culture

Eric Hobsbawm’s Stalinist Homage to Catalonia

Orwell and the Spanish Civil War are all the rage again. Perhaps brought on by the fusion of fantasy and reality that was the international box office success Pan’s Labyrinth, Western intellectuals have swooped down on the warmed-over carrion of … Read More

By / March 5, 2007

Orwell and the Spanish Civil War are all the rage again. Perhaps brought on by the fusion of fantasy and reality that was the international box office success Pan’s Labyrinth, Western intellectuals have swooped down on the warmed-over carrion of Catalonia and waged the kind of factional combat over the historical truth and memory of that conflict that hasn’t been seen since the Berlin Wall fell.

First, Anthony Daniels penned a notorious essay in the February issue of The New Criterion which claimed that in Homage to Catalonia, Orwell proved himself to be a totalitarian-minded socialist who — and I’m not making this up — made Joseph Stalin look like a "freedom-fighter."

March brought with it Auden’s centennial, and the inevitable re-evaluation of the more contentious verses of this one-time Communist poet, especially the couplet from his gorgeous mosaic of word-pictures, "Spain," which runs: "To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death, / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder." Critics including Orwell have read these lines as a sinister endorsement of killing when performed in the quest for social democracy — even if it was suborned and then betrayed by the Comintern.

Lastly, the "Red don" of Cambridge, Eric Hobsbawm, recently offered to the Guardian this pathetic tribute to the conventional wisdom of 1936 about the fight against Iberian fascism.

Knowing that Jewcy contributor Stephen Schwartz is a leading expert on the Spanish Civil War, fluent in the Catalan tongue and culture, and that his scholarship has helped turn post-Soviet revisionism into the accepted narrative of how Catalonia was lost, I’ve asked him to submit a rebuttal to the Hobsbawm piece. Here it is.

–Michael Weiss

Dedicated to Jerry Mintz, friend, mentor, and historian of Hasidism and Anarchism (1930-1997)

The Anglo-German “historian” Eric Hobsbawm, an unrepentant defender of the political and pseudo-intellectual legacy of Stalinism, committed to print, in The Guardian of February 17, a banal but repellent rehash of long-discredited clichés about the Spanish civil war of 1936-39. The chief intent of this arrant falsification was to undermine the reputation of George Orwell and his classic Homage to Catalonia, and thus to rehabilitate the Soviet purge machine that contributed so dreadfully to the defeat of the embattled Spanish Republic.

Hobsbawm represents, at once, a reprehensible genre of poseurs on Spain and, in his inimitable fashion, a special case. In the first instance, Hobsbawm is but one among a vast assortment of commentators on the Spanish war who know little of the Spanish language, much less Catalan, which is the language of some of the most important historical documentation on the conflict. Their works are typically founded on secondary sources in English. This variety of fakers also reveals little comprehension or even superficial acquaintance with the basic historical issues leading to the war or the ideological foundations of the differing factions in the war. Worst of all, the Hobsbawm school on Spain demonstrates an uninterested arrogance with regard to the collective memory of the Spanish people in general, and the Catalan nation in particular, about the war.

Hobsbawm embodies a principle on which I and others have long written: the distinction that must be made between the war of 1936-39 as experienced by the Spanish people, and the parallel conflict fantasized by intellectuals of a leftist persuasion mainly (and now retrospectively) situated, to paraphrase Trotsky, in the Bronx of the Young Communist League. The two had and have nothing in common.

Anglo-American and Anglo-German authors scribble obsessively about the so-called International Brigades, regarding which they foster despicable lies; about the “heroic” role of the Spanish Communist Party, which before the war and after the restoration of democracy following Franco’s death was and remains repudiated by the majority of the Spanish left; and about various brands of second-hand gossip and what today would be called “sound-bite” pseudo-expertise.

This band of memory-murderers have never come to grips with the fundamental lie of Stalinist propaganda, which holds that the Republicans would have won the war if they had submitted to dictation from Moscow – a claim every educated Spanish individual knows to be absurd. The Hobsbawm con therefore works only outside Spain and among a handful of Spanish academics anxious to parade their knock-off versions of Anglo-American campus fashions.

The Spanish people, fortunately, have memories resistant to fraud, and the majority of them long ago came to agree with the anti-Stalinist intellectual Joaquim Maurín, who argued that the Spanish war was lost precisely because it was perceived, toward its end, as a confrontation between Franco and Stalin rather than between Franco and the Spanish left. The Spanish would fight for their radical demands, articulated in the specific idiom of their traditions; they would not fight for Stalin. Tragically, they were forced into a situation in which they were neither right nor wrong, but were robbed of the power to make their own decisions.

Thus the Hobsbawmistas cannot grasp that the battle of historical memory was won long ago in Spain, by neither the Francoists nor the Stalinists, but by the indigenous revolutionary forces. These included the Catalan Republican Left party (Esquerra); the Spanish anarchosyndicalist unions (CNT), the largest and most militant radical labor movement in the world during the 1930s; the militant wing of the Spanish socialist party (PSOE); and the Catalanist anti-Stalinists of the Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista, or POUM, in the militia of which George Orwell served.

Hobsbawm first became prominent in the field of Spanish war studies with a contemptible exercise in pseudo-history included in a volume with the revealing title Primitive Rebels, issued in 1959. The text in question purported to examine the outlook of CNT militants in the uprising at Casas Viejas, a rural hamlet in Andalusia, in 1933.

Hobsbawm claimed to have perceived in the horrific Casas Viejas events – in which numbers of poor land workers and their relatives were shot down and burned alive by the “progressive” Republican state police known as Storm Troops (Guardia del Asalto) assisted by a handful of the detested Guardia Civil – a manifestation of “archaic,” millenarian, incoherent, pseudo-religious, and other ambiguous forms of social discontent. He based this “analysis” on a brief foray into field work during the Franco regime, 23 years after Casas Viejas occurred, The aim of the Stalinist luminary was obvious: to prove that the CNT, which was one of the most cultivated and articulate intellectual phenomena in global left-wing history, was a grab-bag of hallucinated cranks and deluded visionaries, inferior to the mighty Communist police network to which Hobsbawm remains sentimentally loyal.

The deceit employed by Hobsbawm in his discussion of Casas Viejas was so extensive and outrageous it would take a whole book to adequately expose it – and that task was, in fact, successfully undertaken by the late Jerome Mintz, an American ethnologist, in his most excellent 1982 volume The Anarchists of Casas Viejas. Mintz, with devastating accuracy, exposed Hobsbawm as a mendacious tourist in Spanish war topics, noting that notwithstanding the latter’s claim to have gone to the scene and interviewed local people, “his account is based primarily on a preconceived evolutionary model of political development rather than on data gathered in field research.” Mintz correctly states, “The model scales labor movements in accord with their progress toward mass parties and central authority… [Hobsbawm] explains how anarchosyndicalists were presumed to act rather than what actually took place… his evolutionary model misled him on virtually every point.”

Of course the Stalinist Hobsbawm despised the anarchosyndicalists; of course he did not comprehend that Casas Viejas was a moment in Spain’s march toward civil war comparable in notoriety to the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941, and that he therefore trod on risky ground in improvising a version of it for consumption by gullible English-speakers. In Spain today Mintz’s work, based on extensive and serious research and interviews, enjoys high esteem, and in the international ethnological profession it has legitimately become a classic. (Full disclosure: my review of Mintz’s book was one of my first publications in Spanish, and appeared in the historic and admirable anarchist journal Orto, formerly known as Ideas, and forever associated with the anti-Stalinist tradition in Spanish historiography.)

Hobsbawm’s meretricious methodology on Spanish matters was not limited to his examination of the martyred poor of Casas Viejas. He went on to produce a despicable jumble regarding the Catalan anarchist Francisco Sabate Llopart (1915-60), a veteran anti-Stalinist who carried on an active armed struggle against the Franco regime until his murder, again by the hated Civil Guard along with members of the Catalan rural parapolice body, the Sometent. Hobsbawm’s assault on Sabate was published in another book with a revealing title, Bandits (1969). Of that effusion I will say little more than that the surviving comrades of Sabate were once my comrades; and on reading Hobsbawm’s stupidities on Sabate I was moved to hurl the book into a river, an act I do not regret.

It was therefore entirely predictable that Hobsbawm would take to the pages of the Guardian in 2007 to attack Orwell, the POUM, and the general legacy of the Spanish revolution. I will take his contemptible impostures point by point:

Hobsbawm begins by quoting two non-Spanish sources on the war: the French historian François Furet and the British filmmaker Ken Loach. He states “It was not, as the neoliberal François Furet argued it should have been, a war against both the ultra-right and the Comintern – a view shared, from a Trotskyist sectarian angle, by Ken Loach’s powerful film Land and Freedom (1995).” But the Spanish, I am glad to say, know better than Hobsbawm what happened; they understand that the war involved five main forces. On the right, the counter-revolutionary military and, outside the Basque country, traditionalist Catholics, were supported by a tiny fascist movement.

By contrast, three distinct trends appeared on the Republican side:

a) the Catalan Left, Basque nationalists, and other liberal bourgeois trends who wanted to carry out a Jacobin-style modernization;

b) the proletarian upsurge of the CNT, Socialists, and POUM;

c) the Stalinist conspiracy to create a one-party dictatorship.

Moscow tried to unite a) with c) to overcome b), but a) and b) had more in common with each other, and the attempt failed. Stalin, however, succeeded in effectively sabotaging the Republican defense; his discreet 1938 message to Hitler indicating Soviet willingness to withdraw support for the Republic was a crucial step.

Hobsbawm continues, with extraordinary condescension, “87 per cent of Americans favored the Republic… unlike in the second world war, the wrong side won. But it is largely due to the intellectuals, the artists and writers who mobilised so overwhelmingly in favour of the Republic, that in this instance history has not been written by the victors.” For the learned Anglo-German, the opinion of the ordinary Spanish people is nonexistent and irrelevant.

When Spanish voices are finally cited in Hobsbawm’s text, they are limited to the stock Anglo-American curriculum in Castilian poetry: “no doubt where the poets of the Spanish language – those who are now remembered – stood: García Lorca, the brothers Machado, Alberti, Miguel Hernández, Neruda, Vallejo, Guillén.”

In reality, Garcia Lorca was politically ambivalent, and although he was probably murdered for having written a poem titled “Ballad of the Civil Guard,” his death occurred very early in the war, and it is not impossible he would have sided with Franco’s Nationalists. Rafael Alberti, who was once a talented poet but sold himself to the Stalinists, is largely unread in Spanish today.

Neruda was a Stalinist agent and is highly overrated as a poet, mainly the object of devotion by teenagers in the Hispanic world and illiterates elsewhere. About “Guillén” one must indicate another Hobsbawmista gaffe: does he refer to the Spanish poet Jorge Guillén (1893-1984), who sided with the Republic but who was also a Catholic mystic, disliked the Communists intensely, and republished his work in Franco’s Spain, although he was in exile? Or, more likely, does he invoke the Castroite poetaster Nicolás Guillén (1902-89), who first became known by writing a poem to Stalin, then won a Stalin Prize in 1953, the year of the dictator’s demise, and is today unread except by gullible Anglophones?

Hobsbawm cites Hemingway and Malraux – a “macho” admirer of Stalin and a compulsive liar – who wrote two of the worst books imaginable on the Spanish war, as well as Georges Bernanos (1888-1948). With his talent for Stalinist elision, Hobsbawm neglects to mention that Bernanos was a man of the right who originally supported Franco but criticized the atrocities of the Nationalist forces. Hobsbawm was never much for nuance; I doubt he ever read a word of Bernanos. He also seems unaware that a fairly significant number of talented Spanish writers sided with Franco or were otherwise “fascist,” including Camilo José Cela (1916-2002), the 1989 Nobel laureate in literature, who was anything but conformist in his work or his demeanor.

It would be of little use to further cite most of them because to the foreign audience they would be mere ciphers. The Galician regionalist author Álvaro Cunqueiro (1911-81), another dissenter under Franco, and the Catalanist-fascist Josep Vicenç Foix (1894-1987), who discovered the art of Miró, Dalì, and Tàpies, and supported the Republic notwithstanding his ultrarightist views, come to mind. (I once read a truly idiotic academic work by an American professor who assumed that Foix’s poems, which made him a Catalan cultural hero of outstanding importance, were leftist when they were actually Catholic and counter-revolutionary. Dalì, of course, sided with Franco, and given that, as everyone in Spain today admits, he was one of the most devoted homosexual lovers of García Lorca, it is not impossible that his influence would have drawn the latter in the same direction.)

Hobsbawm continues his memorial for revolutionary tourism in Spain by citing Auden, Spender, Day Lewis, MacNeice, and the unfortunate John Cornford (1915-36). Hobsbawmista amnesia is again applied in the Cornford matter; Cornford served in a unit of the POUM, wrote eloquently in support of that party, and might well have been liquidated by the Communists had they gotten the chance.

Hobsbawm recalls, “Anyone entering the rooms of Cambridge socialist and communist students in those days was almost certain to find in them the photograph of John Cornford, intellectual, poet and leader of the student Communist Party, who had fallen in battle in Spain on his 21st birthday, in December 1936. Like the familiar photo of Che Guevara, it was a powerful, iconic image – but it was closer to us, and, standing on our mantelpieces, it was a daily reminder of what we were fighting for.” Yet again, the real Spain is distant, for the “iconic image” of John Cornford is largely unknown to those whose predecessors and surviving relatives, in their millions, underwent the horrors of the Spanish war.

And thus we arrive at the main point: Hobsbawm on Orwell and the POUM. The Stalinist view of Orwell put forward by the noted academic is almost too dense and transparent to merit comment: he dismisses Homage to Catalonia because it was turned down by a Soviet-lining publisher and sold few copies in its first printing. Hobsbawm offers an allegedly self-incriminating quote from an Orwell letter: “Orwell himself recognised in a letter to a friendly reviewer, ‘what you say about not letting the fascists in owing to dissensions between ourselves is very true.’” But a commonsense, as opposed to a deceptive reading of this remark would indicate that Orwell had the Stalinists in mind when he referred to the sowing of dissensions that permitted a Franco victory.

For Hobsbawm, Orwell is not only illegitimate because his book did not sell well, but because he was “an awkward, marginal figure.” By those standards, what are we to make of, say, Moby-Dick, which failed to sell out its first printing? Or Homer, who was really awkward, being blind? Or Fernando Pessoa, who some, myself included, consider among the greatest writers of the 20th century – but who also evinced qualities that would have made him unacceptable to Hobsbawm? Pessoa had almost no literary success during his lifetime and was a rightist in politics, but since Pessoa wrote in Portuguese, there is no reason Hobsbawm should take notice of him.

I have chosen to pass over Hobsbawm’s imbecilic comments on Italian literature (which boasted more than one talented and distinguished fascist), and to mention Borges in this context is mere provocation. As we all know, fascist views are unforgivable in writers, but Stalinism remains, to many politically-correct intellectuals, a badge of honor.

As to the POUM, it is in discussing this phenomenon that Hobsbawm reveals the extent of his obliviousness about the Spanish civil war. He refers with something approaching disdain to “the murder of its leader Andrés Nin [having] caused some international protest.” In reality, as is well-known in Spain today, protests over the brutal murder of Andreu Nin were commoner in Catalonia than outside Spain, and the Catalan Stalinists never overcame the ignominy the crime brought down upon them.

The POUM becomes the pretext for a summum of Hobsbawmian ignorance. He writes, “Polemics about the dissident Marxist Poum are irrelevant here and, given that party’s small size and marginal role in the civil war, barely significant. They belong to the history of ideological struggles within the international communist movement.” This last note is especially grating; having attempted to destroy the POUM’s reputation, Hobsbawm nonetheless want s to make a claim on it.

Andreu Nin (1892-1937) was not simply a Catalan-born ex-Soviet official and leader of an anti-Stalinist party. He was also a respected Catalan-language journalist and the translator into Catalan of several major Russian works, including Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina. His versions of these classics are still widely known in Catalonia, and it is mainly because of them that his murder by the Stalinists has never been forgotten. Memorials to him have been placed in Barcelona and in his birthplace, El Vendrell.

Nin’s assassination was the subject of a prime-time documentary, Operació Nikolai, shown on the Catalan channel TV3 in 1992 and now available in DVD. He was a lover of Mercè Rodoreda (1908-83), one of the most famous Catalan writers of the 20th century. In a dreadful example of what today would be called “collateral damage,” the outstanding Russian novelist Boris Pilnyak (1894-1938) was liquidated by Stalin’s police only because one of his lesser works, the 1930 novel The Volga Flows Into the Caspian, was translated into Catalan by the “Trotskyite” Nin, and Pilnyak had made the enormous mistake of keeping the letters Nin had sent him from Barcelona. To kill Nin was not the same as it would have been to murder, say, the American Trotskyist Max Shachtman, but would have been more like liquidating John Dos Passos – something the Stalinists in Spain would have been pleased to do.

The role of the POUM in Catalan history was never marginal, for several important reasons: it filled the Marxist political space in the region’s labor movement left open by the overwhelming domination of the CNT; its members included most of the original founders of the Spanish Communist party, and it embraced “minority” nationalism, i.e. Catalanism, at a time when such a position was novel in Spain and, with regard to other “stateless languages,” almost unknown elsewhere in the Western European left. Nin was the only theoretician of European movements for national emancipation prominent in the Communist milieu of the 1930s. After the civil war, while the Spanish Stalinists were so discredited they could not maintain an underground network in Barcelona, the CNT and POUM were able to continue resistance (Sabate being but one example) and, following the second world war, even led mass strikes.

In 1945, a faction of the POUM formed the Moviment Socialista de Catalunya, which helped organize a Stalinist-free Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC) that was joined by other prominent POUM members in 1976. The PSC happens to govern Catalonia today. The outstanding historical figure of the post-Franco Catalan Socialists, Pasqual Maragall, served as an extremely popular mayor of Barcelona and president of the Catalan regional Generalitat, and has written and spoken vividly about the relevance of the POUM for modern Catalan politics. In 1998, Maragall presided over the naming of a small square for Orwell in Barcelona’s old town. Nothing could better symbolize the victory of the anti-Stalinists in the battle of historical memory in Spain.

In the cultural field, one cannot fail to mention the impact in Spain of the first major novel to address the horrific aftermath of the civil war – a period recently re-examined in the Oscar-winning film El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth). The work that inaugurated a debate on this topic in Spain was Si te dicen que caí (The Fallen), by the Catalan writer Juan Marsé, published in 1973 in Mexico, while Francoist censorship was still in effect. Si te dicen que caí was made into a motion picture by the leading director Vicente Aranda in 1989.

Its plot focuses on the fate of a young girl related to Andreu Nin, Aurora Nin, who had been active as a teenager in the ranks of the left during the war but was degraded beyond measure after the defeat of Republic. The book, considered a contemporary classic, deliberately incorporates echoes of Homage to Catalonia. In the movie, Aurora Nin was played by the popular actress Victoria Abril; the cast also included Antonio Banderas. The film is deeply upsetting, but ends on a note of resistance. It includes a references to the “chinos” or “Chinese” who killed Andreu Nin – “the Chinese” was the nickname the Barcelona proletarians gave their Soviet benefactors.

In addition, the Catalan Communist author Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1939-2003) produced a sympathetic novel, The Pianist (1985) about a POUM supporter – as an expression of his guilt over his party’s campaign of lies and terror against the anti-Stalinists. But of course a Catalan writer would suffer a crisis of conscience about these matters, which leave Hobsbawm untouched.

Unfortunately, however, I must conclude by briefly addressing Hobsbawm’s libels against the Spanish revolutionary militias, with which he closes his polemic. Hobsbawm informs us “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.” Once again, the Stalin-nostalgia betrays his ignorance of Spanish reality.

The Spanish people fought for three years, in a libertarian fashion – not limited to the CNT and POUM militias, but also in the militia formations of the Esquerra, the PSOE, and the Basque Nationalists, alongside the “traditional” Republican military units to which the Stalinists were so attached. As the Spanish today know very well, the militia units generally fought better than the militarized units. In particular, the Stalinist-controlled International Brigades and the militarized Republican soldiery with whom they were coordinated were known for incompetence in battle, desertion, and, in the case of many of the foreigners, their reassignment to special groups ordered by the Russians to kill leftist dissidents, since the Spanish would not carry out such duties. Furthermore, the acolytes of Spanish Stalinism ignore that the CNT and POUM never attempted to transform the militarized units into militias; they simply wanted to maintain their own autonomy.

More important, perhaps, is the fact, imperceptible to Hobsbawm and others like him, that the Spanish people, in 1936-39, bore profound knowledge of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain of 1808-14, in which the modern, highly-disciplined, and ideological armies of Bonaparte were largely defeated by Spanish guerrilla forces. It was, indeed, in that war that the term “guerrilla” was invented, and from that tragic and epic struggle that some of the most famous works of Goya, as well as Spanish songs later appropriated and corrupted by the Stalinists, to be sung in the Bronx to the sound of Pete Seeger’s banjo, emerged. The Spanish knew so many things that Hobsbawm will never know – and above all, they know that while Orwell’s methods might not have guaranteed the victory of the Spanish Republic, those of Stalin and his admirers assured its defeat.

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