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The Cheapest Transaction

“In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia, I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers’ table.” Such is the famous opening of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, recognized in Catalonia itself, … Read More

By / November 25, 2008

“In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia, I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers’ table.”

Such is the famous opening of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, recognized in Catalonia itself, as in most of the rest of the world, as the indispensable account of disillusioned revolutionary hopes and Stalinist betrayal in the Spanish civil war of 1936-39.

I would, with proper humility, begin the following commentary with a paraphrase of Orwell: “In a newsstand at Barajas Airport in Madrid, the day before I headed back to Kosovo and its echoes of the Spanish civil war, I saw a title on a table of books.  It read Las víctimas de Negrín: Reinvindicación del POUM (The Victims of Negrín: Vindication of the POUM).  The author was Antonio Cruz González, a Spanish labor activist and historian.”

So the reader does not become lost,  deep in leftist sectariana, I will note that Juan Negrín was a minor politician from the Canary Islands who became the front-man for Soviet interference and repression of leftist dissidence late in the Spanish war.  He was infamous for his vanity and uncontrolled sexual and eating appetites, and the date of his birth is contested, but he died in his ‘60s in 1956.  His rehabilitation, as a member of the Spanish Socialist party who rose to a high level of power, has been pursued by a group of revisionist historians.  But he remains a figure of criticism and contempt among many Spanish Socialists who opposed totalitarianism, as well as anarchists and partisans of the anti-Stalinist Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista (POUM), the Workers Party for Marxist Unification, whose militia Orwell joined and described in his immortal volume.

Debate over the POUM and its fate, as well as that of the other Spanish anti-Stalinists, the Republic itself, and the Soviet agents, including, at least by implication, the American mercenaries for the Moscow secret police who called themselves “the Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” has become a persistent theme in Catalan and general Spanish historiography in the 33 years since the death of dictator Francisco Franco.

With the post-1975 Spanish transition from dictatorship to democracy, the national archives were opened, disclosing a considerable quantity of information about Soviet persecution under the Republic, including secret police notes on the pursuit of Orwell.  The Catalan Communists, for their part, sought to rid themselves of the taint of their involvement in Soviet liquidations of Spanish and foreign Trotskyists and others. The Barcelona Communist leaders, along with survivors of the POUM and the anarchist movement, and some distinguished historians, helped the main Catalan television channel produce a documentary, Operació Nikolai, describing the Russian kidnaping and assassination of POUM leader Andreu Nin (1892-1937).  The film was based on Nin’s official Soviet case file – the sole example of release by the Russians themselves of a dossier on a foreign liquidation – and shown on prime time in Catalonia in 1992.

The Catalan Socialist party, which had been joined by POUM remnants in the aftermath of the second world war, gained power and began a policy of renaming urban sites for anti-Stalinists, including Orwell (who has a small square in Barcelona), Nin, and other individuals.  Barcelona’s main railroad station, Estació Sants, now stands in a location celebrating Joan Peiró (1887-1942), a distinguished luminary of the anarchosyndicalist CNT union federation.  The region of Aragón where Orwell served as a militiaman currently advertises a tourist trail dedicated to him.  

The Soviet archives on the Spanish war were also partly and briefly opened, and in 2001 Ronald Radosh, Mary Habeck, and Grigory Sevostianov published a selection of documents, Spain Betrayed, in the distinguished Yale University Press series of reference handbooks on Soviet history.  That book, which should have completely changed the historiography of the Spanish war, was translated and appeared in Spain itself in 2002.

More was to come.  In 2006, a Spanish historian, José María Zavala published En busca de Andreu Nin, on the murder of the POUM leader.  In 2007, I took to the webpages at Jewcy to challenge unapologetic Stalinist Eric Hobsbawm for his attack on the anarchists and POUM.

In recent times the broader issues of who did what to whom on all sides during the Spanish war has been resurrected, as if the reopening of past controversies and exhumation of the dead was necessary to heal a deep division in Spain’s past.  Most commentary on this topic has been directed against the Spanish right. The left has manipulated the case of the poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), who was executed by Francoist forces in circumstances that will probably never be fully elucidated, to demand public recognition of and, presumably, compensation for crimes committed by the counter-revolutionary side.  This month, Spanish magistrate and media freak Baltasar Garzón became an object of scorn even among those who sympathize with him when he learned he could not subject Franco and his close associates to a legal proceeding for their atrocities, given that the dictator has been dead for some decades.

During the 1970s, when revolutionary expectations were briefly rekindled in Spain, it was said that the civil war had ended as a struggle between the murderers of García Lorca and those of Nin.  This opinion echoed the argument of Nin’s co-founder in the POUM, Joaquím Maurín (1893-1973), who said the war was lost when it became a confrontation between Franco and Stalin instead of one between the indigenous right and left.  Another POUM intellectual, Julià Gòmez Gorkín (1901-87) theorized that in the Spanish Republic, Stalin had the first opportunity to test the political strategy of cooptation, repression, and manipulation that would produce the aberrant regimes seen in post-1945 Eastern Europe, and known as “people’s democracies.”  In this form of tyranny, the Russian secret police and the Communist parties controlled the system, but amelioratively-titled front parties gave the regime a public face of alleged pluralism.

The question of whether Republican Spain was really the first example of a so-called “people’s democracy” is a complex one.  First, Stalin’s agents in Spain murdered and kidnapped dissidents (several of the latter were taken to Russia and disappeared, and, unlike Andreu Nin, Soviet documentation on their cases remains closed).   Moscow certainly betrayed the Republic, a development signaled by Soviet press compliments to the German Nazis in 1938.  At that time, the Communist International (Comintern) also shut down the Polish Communist party, since the latter, of all the Communists, would be least likely to accept the soon-to-come Stalin-Hitler pact.

Nevertheless, it is a major error to think that the Spanish Republic became a mere Soviet puppet at the end of the war.  Notwithstanding generations of overheated Trotskyist rhetoric, which has tried to portray the Spanish anarchists and POUM as helpless victims of wholesale slaughter because they would not heed the strategic advice of Trotsky, the anarchists were not killed en masse by the Stalinists, and managed to withdraw hundreds of thousands of their militia members into France at the end of the war.  Although a relatively small number of POUM militants were slain, the most notable being Nin, the POUM leadership was absolved at trial of a charge of acting on behalf of Franco.  The Spanish Republic’s bourgeois judiciary would not support a purge on the Moscow model, and most of the POUM leaders survived the war, as well as later imprisonment in French and German concentration camps.  Finally, the POUM and anarchists were far better than other anti-Stalinists at defending themselves, thanks to their deep roots among the Spanish populace.

In general, the anti-Stalinists have won the battle of historical memory in the Spanish left, not the mush-brained acolytes of Stalin, nor the later equivalents of the American sentimentalists who kept alive the myth of the so-called “Lincoln Brigade” (never larger than a battalion, never efficient in combat, never decisive in winning a battle, and finally consigned to police duties Spanish Republicans would not accept, like executing dissenting leftists).

This reality is demonstrated in many places in Spain.  Traveling from Barcelona to Madrid, on November 22, I read in  the dominant Spanish leftist daily El País about an art show at the Museo Nacional Centro Reina Sofía, dedicated to the German modernist Carl Einstein (1885-1940).  This Jewish exile fought alongside the Spanish anarchists in the civil war, rather like Orwell, but his work is now displayed thanks to the patronage of Spain’s reigning queen.  The same paper, the next day, included a long document titled “Stalin and Spain,” in which the historian Angel Viñas, one of the earliest to adopt this disgraceful path in the 1980s, attempted to close the debate over whether the Spanish Republic became the first “people’s democracy.”  Viñas used a report from the period by a Russian functionary, Sergey Marchenko, as evidence that the Russians pressured Negrin toward greater firmness, and that therefore the Spanish regime could be not considered under total Muscovite control.  This may indeed be true, but remains a detail: above all, Moscow undermined the Republic, attempted to bring it under its dominion, and unleashed a secret police hunt for non-conforming radicals.  These facts can no longer be denied.

All of which is mere background to the theme of my present commentary: the fate not of the POUM itself, but of the only volume dedicated to the POUM in English, written by the eminent Catalan historian Víctor Alba (born name Pere Pagès, 1916-2003) and translated, corrected, amplified, and otherwise edited by me.  The book is titled Spanish Marxism vs. Soviet Communism: A History of the POUM, and was issued by an outfit called Transaction Publishers, located at Rutgers University, in 1988.  Alba recognized my contribution to the work by stipulating that I should be listed as co-author, rather than simply as translator, and assigning all royalties to me.

Twenty years of historical disclosures, debate, and reflection have passed since the issuance of the book I worked on, to my great pleasure and honor, with Alba.  It is cited and acknowledged in various works on the Spanish war, including the Radosh compendium, and resides in numerous libraries.  Some Spanish historians and recusant leftists have written polemics in reply to it.  One Spanish faker, who shall remain unnamed, managed to appropriate and claim as his own some of my research.  I would like to be able to revise the book to reflect the mass of revelations and discoveries since 1988.

It should seem that the updating of Spanish Marxism vs. Soviet Communism should be an easy task.  But the bizarre business enterprise called Transaction Books has made that impossible.  Transaction is headed by a second-rate associate of the New York intellectuals named Irving Louis Horowitz.  Horowitz once had a significant reputation as a historian of Communism in Cuba, but today he is mainly known to authors for the way he runs Transaction.  Claiming that his operation is the publisher of record in the social sciences, Horowitz solicits serious authors for works that have little hope of gaining trade publication.   In my case, he paid no advance, made no attempt to keep in touch with me about sales while I travelled around the world, insulted me (to my face) on various occasions, and now proposes to republish the book I completed with Alba, twenty years out of date, and with no changes to the text.

Why would a publisher conduct his affairs in such a manner?  Frankly, because Horowitz, in my opinion, has contempt for authors.  He knows he will never produce a successful trade book under his own name.  He knows he mainly publishes works that authors have little hope of  introducing to the trade.  He knows he is, finally, nobody, even though I once saw him preening at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where his list had almost no hope of gaining attention.  Did the state of New Jersey, which supports Rutgers, pay for that junket?  Horowitz has only one power and that is the power to say no.  In my case, even after I hired the most respected intellectual-property lawyer in Washington to try to pry the POUM book out of his claws, he put forward such arguments as the following: “Schwartz has nothing to complain about… we are protecting the rights of Víctor Alba [who, let us not forget, is now dead],” and 20 years of new historiography of the Spanish conflict provide no reason to revise such a book.

Horowitz’s attitude really comes down to him saying “this is my business, authors’ efforts become my property, not theirs, and I decide what happens once an author has the misfortune to hand me his or her work.”

What can I do in this situation?  The intellectual property attorney I hired told me that in the absence of a specific agreement providing for transfer of full authors’ rights to me after Alba’s death, I can do nothing. Yet the book in question is unquestionably a collaborative work, as Alba himself declared in the contract and Horowitz himself is compelled to admit.

These issues should have been cleared up by intellectual property law reforms in recent years.  Of course, there will always be vultures like Irving Louis Horowitz who believe that abusing the status of Rutgers to exploit and demean authors, is somehow an acceptable form of publishers’ conduct.

I will not give up.  I worked on the POUM book unpaid, and I do not seek profit from it, but I do want it brought up to date, considering that the changes in debate over the Spanish war, and, not least, over Orwell, have been as momentous in their way as those that transpired in ex-Soviet Russia itself.  Some old anarchist associates of mine have suggested that I simply edit the book and have it published outside the U.S., free of Horowitzian interference, since producing and distributing books is easier now than it was two decades past.  This could, presumably, be construed as piracy, and the irascible and selfish Horowitz might then have to pay lawyers much more money to pursue a case against me than he would have had to lay out for a simple revision of the book.  But why should an author be forced to “pirate” his own work, especially given that the specific volume in question will never turn a profit, and was created exclusively for the benefit of historical truth?

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