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.

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