Saturday, August 30, 2014

George Orwell in the Spanish Civil War and revolutionary tourism in Syria

Marcy Wheeler has a good point in her post Did Eric Arthur Blair Come Back from Catalonia Radicalized? Emptywheel 08/29/2014.

Which has me thinking — and not for the first time — of the large numbers of people who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

After all, it’s not like wanting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad is an ignoble goal. And while I think most Brits (and Americans) will grow disillusioned by the intolerance and ruthless discipline of ISIS, I can imagine the attraction, from afar, of moral certitude they offer. The 1930s, like today, are a morally confusing time, and those who fought the fascists in Spain ended up being vanguards of a necessary fight, even if they fought for an equally loathsome authoritarian force in the process.

The experience of fighting — and growing disillusioned — in Spain was chronicled by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. After his return, his views were suspect, but he did manage to return to the UK and warn of the dangers of absolutism.
Marcy's account skips over some of the fine points. By "an equally loathsome authoritarian force in the process," I assume she means the Soviet Union.

And while the USSR did sponsor the International Brigades, the government they were supported was the elected democratic government of the Spanish Republic.

And Orwell actually fought with a group called the Partido Obrero de Unification Marxista (POUM). Gabrielle Ranzato in The Spanish Civil War (1999; Janet Sehre Paxia translator) discusses the situation in early 1937:

The situation thus hurled toward war. And the point of collision could be none other than Barcelona, the revolutionary city, the city farthest from control by the central government. There, a small, anti-Stalinist party - the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista). the object of the [Soviet-line] Communist International's greatest aversion, was attempting to orient the anarchist organizations in the direction of a political revolution along the lines of the original Russian one. This aim was sometimes foolhardy in its ambition. ...

A single clash was therefore sufficient to spark off the decisive battle. In early May of 1937 the Catalan government police force, headed by a Communist, tried to occupy the telephone company building where the anarchists, who had been settled in there since July, controlled trolled all communications. A shooting match broke out and soon spread throughout the city. Barricades reemerged, behind which on one side, the POUM militants were shooting together with the anarchists; and on the other, the Communists of the PSUC (Partit Socialita Unificat de Catalunya) together with the Catalan autonomists. The fighting caused hundreds of casualties, and was ended by appeals from the anarchist ministers who had hastened in from Madrid, followed by the intervention of central government troops sent to preside over pacification.

What followed brought total victory for the [Soviet-line] Communists. ... The Communists opened the crisis after the old Socialist leader refused to agree to their request to dissolve the POUM; they succeeded in imposing a new government which excluded the anarchists. That government was supported by the Republican parties and by Prieto's moderate Socialists, and headed by one of the latter, Juan Negrín. ...

The POUM was outlawed; its leaders were imprisoned; its secretary, Andres Nin, was kidnapped and assassinated. [my emphasis]
The POUM and the anarchists were acting on the notion that a social revolution had to be staged to create a government with strong enough popular support to defeat Franco's Falangists.

The point Marcy makes in her post is to call attention to the similarity in the situation of revolutionary tourists like Orwell in Spain and those in Syria today. I hadn't thought of it until I read her post.

I'm not sure that the British government at the time would have regarded Orwell's fighting in a militia that regarded itself as more communist than the Communists as more benign than directly supporting the pro-Spanish-Republic Communists.

But her point is a very good one. The fact that a young person decides to go fight against a Syrian regime that even the Western media demonized for months until the Obama Administration recently decided we may need to ally with them, that in itself doesn't mean they will be incorrigible terrorists for life.

One more installment in the long let's-not-do-stupid-stuff when it comes to the so-called War On Terrorism.

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