Thursday, July 23, 2009

Interrogating the myth of the Popular Front

Reading Mark Derby's book Kiwi Compañeros (which compiles a wealth of primary source material detailing the involvement of New Zealanders in the Spanish Civil War) recently I was struck by the disjunction between the confused and often demoralising experiences of the some of the participants whose stories were reproduced in that volume and the traditional leftist narrative according to which the Spanish Civil War was the most glorious hour of the Popular Front and the struggle against Fascism.

This disjunction between heroic narrative or myth and tragic reality has also been explored in depth in another book which I also happened to pick up recently, Sebastian Faber's Exile and Cultural Hegemony: Spanish Intellectuals in Mexico 1939-1975 and which I strongly recommend to anyone interested in this subject area.

Faber locates the leftist mythologising of the Popular Front in Spain squarely within the context of the struggle between the Spanish Republicans and the Franco regime over who were the genuine inheritors of Spanish national culture and identity, pointing out the striking similarities in the kinds of patriotic rhetoric and appeals to a glorious national past which characterised the propaganda of both sides during and after the Civil War.

These similarities account for the political disorientation felt by intellectuals who flocked to support the Republican cause during the Civil War, most notably the English writer George Orwell whose book Homage to Catalonia describes how the initial euphoria following the electoral victory of the Popular Front coalition of Republicans, Catalan nationalists and the PSOE in February 1936 which saw peasants and workers spontaneously expropriating latifundia and factories and forming their own armed militias was abruptly curtailed and repressed by none other than the Popular Front government later that same year in the name of maintaining "unity" in the struggle against Franco's Nationalist insurgency.

For many Spanish Republican intellectuals this process of disillusionment began even earlier, with the failure of their misiones pedagógicas or educational missions to the countryside which were couched in terms of elitist Krausist ideology to inspire the hoped-for spark of enlightenment among the oppressed pueblo (who naturally were preoccupied with more pressing, material concerns!).

Some of these Spanish intellectuals (such as Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset) were sufficiently disillusioned with the masses as to cross over to sympathising with Franco's Nationalists. However the majority continued to live in a state of denial about the true nature of their relationship with the muchedumbre (multitude).

As Faber points out, this delusion was only intensified during the long exile of the Republican intellectuals in Latin America after 1939, where they founded numerous magazines and reviews dedicated to the task of preserving the flame of "authentic" Spanish culture and identity. Faber cites the journal España Peregrina founded by the Creationist poet Juan Larrea as a typical example of this reinterpretation of the Civil War as a process of national spiritual purification, noting that

...this particular brand of "poetic" historiography, which combined Hegelian teleology with an exceptionalist reading of Spanish history, allowed Larrea to represent the Spanish Civil War ' which had been experienced by most exiles as a great and unnecessary injustice - as a positive event of enormous historical significance.


Juan Larrea (right) with Vicente Huidobro

In the end though, Faber argues, the struggle of the Republican exiles for cultural hegemony was doomed from the beginning due to several key factors.

The first of these was the concentration of their efforts in the area of literary or "high" culture, which in countries such as Mexico with repressive authoritarian governments was the only avenue open to the intellectuals as it commanded no mass audience and therefore posed no threat.

The second was their need as financial and material beneficiaries of these same regimes to remain silent about the very real injustices and inequalities that existed in their new home countries (Faber returns again and again to the fact that Mexican PRI following the retirement of Cárdenas in 1940 certainly had little reason to be deserving of the appellation "progressive").

Finally, there was the arrogant supposition that with the departure of the Republican exiles the Spanish nation had been deprived of any literary or cultural means of expressing itself. Yet during the 1950s a new generation of writers - such as novelist Juan Goytisolo and the poet Carlos Barral - who unlike the exiles were actually read by the general public yet had no dynastic ties to the Republic.

The failure of the Republican exiles' crusade for cultural hegemony is highly significant, Faber contends, in that superiority in the sphere of cultural and literary production had always been crucial to the Popular Front's claims of political legitimacy - especially from 1937 onwards as it began to repress (now with the enthusiastic support of the Stalinist PCE) left oppositionist forces such as the marxist POUM and the anarchist CNT. It is hardly coincidental that in that same year - 1937 - the Spanish Republican government co-sponsored the "International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture" in Valencia, whose list of participants (Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Vicente Huidobro, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Bertolt Brecht, WH Auden - to name only a few!) reads like a who's who list of the international literary world at the time.

However, while the Republic may have failed to secure cultural hegemony among the ordinary Spanish masses it did succeed in convincing the international leftist intelligentsia, many of whom to this day do not question the heroic iconography associated with the Spanish Popular Front such as the International Brigades, La Pasionaria and the "Defence of Madrid".

In this respect, it was undoubtedly helped by the Nationalist atrocities which converted figures such as Federico García Lorca and Antonio Machado into martyrs or secular saints.

Faber's book is an important antidote to this powerful and pervasive myth of the Popular Front which enables us to look at the events of recent Spanish history in a clear-eyed, non-sentimental way, without for a moment trivialising the magnitude of the suffering which many of the Popular Front's supporters endured.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pío Baroja on Don Quixote

From the dialogue between Andrés and Iturrioz in Part Four of El árbol de la ciencia (1911):

The more one understands the less one desires. This is logical, and furthermore can be proved in reality. The appetite to know is awoken in those individuals who are at the end of a process of evolution, when the desire to live becomes languid. Man, whose necessity is to know, is like the butterfly that breaks out of the chrysalis in order to die. The healthy individual, the individual who is strong and truly alive, does not see things as they are because it is not agreeable to him. He is inside a hallucination.

Don Quixote, whom Cervantes wished to appear foolish, is a symbol of the affirmation of life. Don Quixote lives more than all the sane people around him, and with more intensity than the others. The individual or nation who wish to live envelop themselves in clouds like the ancient gods when they appeared to mortals. The vital instinct needs to invent fictions in order to sustain itself. So then knowledge, the critical instinct, the instinct of inquiry must confront an essential truth: that lies are necessary for us in order to go on living.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Politics as a paint-by-numbers exercise

While I don't often share the same political conclusions as Chris Trotter, his analysis is nevertheless often acute and thought-provoking.

Chris's latest blog post over at Bowalley Road is a case in point: while the idea that Obama's condemnation of the recent golpe de estado in Honduras somehow proves that the U.S. Democrats are now part of a new left-wing foreign policy axis in Latin America is difficult to swallow, Chris does make the telling observation that many on the left seem either unable or unwilling to come to terms with the fact that since the end of the Cold War the US is actually quite reluctant to support military dictators in the region.

Thus, whenever local reactionaries try to topple a democratically-elected leftist leader (as has just happened to President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras) the pre-programmed response of some activists is not to try to analyse the situation on its own merits but rather to immediately stage a protest outside the nearest US consulate or embassy - a kind of political "paint-by-numbers" exercise if you will.

To a certain extent, these people have become victims of the Latin American oligarchy's own propaganda machine - which insists that Zelaya is "another Chávez" and some kind of revolutionary. In fact he is nothing more than the scion of the establishment Partido Liberal who since coming to office in 2006 has alienated a few of his wealthy backers by enacting some mild social democratic reforms and seeking greater economic cooperation with countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia.

Efforts to gain a clear picture of the situation are admittedly not helped by over-excited journalists such as those of the Spanish liberal daily El País running stories with headlines like "Golpe contra el chavismo" - which just shows I guess that the Latin American oligarchy know how to pander to the anti-Chávez prejudices of the PSOE.

Then we have Joaquín Villalobos, a former FMLN guerilla turned El Salvadorean Gerry Adams wannabe writing in the same newspaper on Monday that

...Sin duda hay que rechazar el golpe, pero la comunidad internacional debe tener en cuenta que las políticas autoritarias en Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua y Venezuela se han convertido en una seria provocación para las fuerzas conservadoras y centristas de toda la región. Las expropiaciones de empresas, los cierres de medios de comunicación, la intimidación callejera, las arbitrariedades judiciales, las reelecciones perpetuas y los fraudes son como golpes de Estado graduales. La polarización ideológica chavista está debilitando sociedades amenazadas por miles de pandilleros y poderosos carteles. Centroamérica puede convertirse en un bastión del crimen organizado que dé refugio a mafiosos y terroristas en medio de un caos y una inseguridad endémica que genere millones de emigrantes.

So now apparently it's all the fault of the Chávez, Morales and Correa whose hugely popular policies of economic nationalisation and wealth redistribution have enabled them to be (shock horror!) repeatedly re-elected and thus provoked the poor oppressed oligarchs into mounting coups...

To come back to the original point though, it is never wise to believe the enemy's propaganda - and still less to assume that because a group of army coup plotters received training in the US that they therefore have the active support of that country's government.

It is also important not to place a + sign over certain political figures or movements simply because your opponents place a - symbol. This is the same mistake made by progressive leaders like Chávez who in their well-intentioned desire to oppose US imperialism bestow upon decidedly less progressive regimes (such as those of Iran and Belarus) the epithet of "anti-imperialist" simply because they oppose Washington.

Finally, at the practical local level while running around staging protests outside the US consulate or some other convenient target may help to boost morale among left-wing activists it serves little logical purpose beyond that.

I say this as one who once belonged to an organisation whose standard practice every May Day was to stage a picket outside the local McDonalds restaurant (it was a small provincial city and as such lacked any more tangible symbols of global capitalism). While it made us all feel terribly important at the time, looking back now it must have presented the most ludicrous and baffling spectacle to those working class punters who had their lunch hour interrupted by a bunch of mangy-looking students waving placards and banging kettle drums on the street outside.

The moral of the story? Simply that mindless activism and breathless articles cobbled-together from the bourgeois press is no substitute for careful and considered analysis.