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Critique of rewriting history

Eric Hobsbawm's Stalinist Homage to Catalonia
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, March 5, 2007

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.

POUM Man: George Orwell served with the anarchosyndicalist/Trotskyist militia in CataloniaPOUM Man: George Orwell served with the anarchosyndicalist/Trotskyist militia in CataloniaThe Spanish people, fortunately, have memories resistant to fraud, and the majority of them long ago came to agree with the anti-Stalinist intellectual Joaquim Maur*n, 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.)

Anti-Stalinist Anarchist: Francisco Sabate LlopartAnti-Stalinist Anarchist: Francisco Sabate LlopartHobsbawm’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.

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