Individual, class and nation in Spain, 1936-1939 - Juan McIver

Federico Garciá Lorca

Juan McIver looks at the Spanish Civil War and the work of poet and playwright Federico García Lorca

The individual in Lorca
The play El public (The Public) was written by Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) in 1930. It was never performed during his lifetime. On 16 July 1936 Lorca left the manuscript in Madrid. Five weeks later, he was murdered by Franco’s troops in Granada.

Franco’s military alzamiento of 17 July 1936 started ostensibly against the Popular Front Government but in reality it was aimed at crushing the insurgent working population of Spain. The Italian and German Fascist regimes had defeated similar social unrest, and in neighbouring Portugal, Salazar’s state was also a bulwork of reaction. Léon Blum’s Popular Front government in France showed a different way of deflecting social unrest. In the USSR, Stalin was preparing further purges — the Moscow Trials that shocked the world in August. Claiming to represent the traditions of the Russian revolution, Stalinism was as totalitarian as the Nazi régime. As Stalin’s Great Terror unfolded in 1936-38, the world rushed to the abyss of WW2.

Lorca shunned political involvement in a society being ruthlessly polarised by the Army and the Popular Front parties. However, he had humanist and utopian opinions about the individual and society. In April of ‘36, he said in a long interview: "I see it clearly. Two men are walking along a riverbank. One is rich, the other poor. One has a full belly, the other pollutes the air with his yawns. The rich man says, ‘Oh, what a pretty boat I see on the water! Look sir, at the iris flowering on the shore.’ And the poor man grumbles, ‘I’m hungry; I don’t see anything. I’m hungry, very hungry.’ The day hunger disappears the world will see the greatest spiritual explosion humanity has ever known. Men will never be able to imagine the happiness that will erupt on the day of the Great Revolution." 1

For holding such opinions, and for his sexual ambivalence, Lorca was a marked man. Franco’s military-clerical crusade was not only anti-working class but deeply homophobic and misogynistic.

In El public, Lorca’s views about individuality are profoundly subversive. They address the difficulty, if not impossibility, of love in a repressive society. His first play, El maleficio de la mariposa (The Butterfly’s Evil Spell), was a scandal in 1920. The plot has been called ‘preposterous’. 2 Perhaps: after all, it dealt with the rather unpredictable love between a cockroach, Curianito, and his Butterfly paramour. Other creatures in the play were glow-worms and a scorpion. By the end of the drama Curianito and his beloved Butterfly die, proving that love brings only suffering, never joy. 3 But the play also asserted that "...love springs forth with equal intensity on all planes of love". 4 To assert that insects (and, later, gays) were capable of the most intense and sublime expressions of love was indeed subversive in the 30s.

El public contains many of Lorca’s intimate views of the individual’s tragic fate in society. Because the manuscript included themes of homosexual ‘mad love’ (amour fou), he knew the play would face scandal and fierce opposition. This was true in spite of the victory of the Second Republic in 1931."This is for the theatre years from now" he remarked at the time, "Until then, let’s say no more about it." 5

The play’s symbolism ruthlessly exposes the violence endemic in society. The main character is a Theatre Director who perishes attempting to renew himself through a ‘Theatre of Beneath the Sand’. This is a theatre of authenticity; a living project where the lies and pretenses of the repressed and repressive public are exposed. For his own play, the Director uses the Romeo and Juliet characters from Shakespeare’s play. However, Juliet is a youth in disguise. The real and moaning Juliet has been left gagged and trussed under the seats. To the Director, it didn’t matter if the sexes were swapped. But the public didn’t tolerate this transgression and ‘the revolution’ broke out. They disembowelled the Director, Romeo and both Juliets. A lady witness remarks ‘...the revolution had no right to desecrate a tomb.’

El public shows the influence of Pirandello, the (mainly French) avant garde (Cocteau) and surrealism.

In Lorca these influences and techniques are woven into a new, magical and delirious tapestry. Here we have a stroppy Juliet arguing with one of the White Horses (who trumpet and talk back):

"People, and yet more people; they’ll be in my tomb next, taking over my very cot. I’m not interested in discussing love, and theatre; what I want is ... to LOVE.
White Horse. TO LOVE!
Juliet. Yes, a love that lasts no more than a moment. 6

In Lorca’s plays love is elusive and violence is always near the surface. Witness this surreal dialogue between two figures, one covered in little golden bells and the other with red vine leaves:

"Bells. If I changed myself into a cloud?
Vine leaves. I’d change myself into an eye.
Bells. If I changed myself into a turd?
Vine leaves. I’d change myself into a fly.
Bells. If I change myself into an apple?
Vine leaves. I’d change myself into a kiss.
Bells. If I changed myself into a breast?
Vine leaves. I’d change myself into a white bedsheet.
Voice (sarcastic). Oh well done!
Bells. And if I were to change myself into a moonfish?
Vine leaves. I should change myself into a knife." 7

Lorca’s vision of the individual, and of his tragic quest for love, has the resonance of the social conflict devouring Spain in the mid 30s. His love, disguised by endless masks that crushed, is not the marvellous of Breton’s amour fou (1937), but he would have shared Fourier’s criticism of the society that killed that divine passion: "...what is the aim of this political system which represses love so violently? Is it to reduce society to poverty, deceit, oppression, carnage, etc? Of course not. But this has been the result of the civilised system which represses love and grants it only a minimum of legitimacy." 8

The individual is defined by Lorca as a being passionately in need of love. "He alone loves who has the strength to hold fast to love", wrote Adorno in 1946. 9 The fact that individuals, generally, cannot fulfil this species need in communal life is a fundamental critique of an alienated society. Lorca’s art, and specifically El public, is therefore a testimony of rebellion, of refusal to adapt to inhumanity. His art is also a tribute to his strength to hold on to love. All humans have this capacity, in greater or lesser degree, but unfortunately few of us leave records of this quest in art forms.

The individual and class in the Spanish Civil War
Was there a ‘social revolution’ in Spain in 1936-39? In key industrial regions, and in Madrid, there was a resolute workers’ and popular resistance to Franco’s alzamiento during and immediately after 19 July 1936. Suddenly a mass movement was unleashed, of factory takeovers by workers and land collectivizations by agricultural workers and poor peasants. However, this elemental class movement coexisted with the hulk of the Republican Government, and supported it. Anarchists of the CNT-FAI, UGT trade unionists and the Marxists of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) rushed to support (albeit critically) and even join the Popular Front coalition and the Generalitat in Catalonia. The Spanish Communist Party, until then relatively small, was extremely active in reviving the moribund Republic. The autonomous interests of the workers were subordinated to the needs of the democratic state. These needs momentarily coincided with the USSR’s strategic needs. Just like the Italian and German Fascists supported Franco’s crusade, Stalin supported the Republic’s. From the late summer of 1936 the workers’ militias were gradually militarised into a National, centralised Army. The process of militarisation was criticised and resisted, but it became irresistible when the Army’s modern weapons were supplied by the USSR. A minority tried to resist the totalitarian drift by insurrection in Barcelona in May 1937, but it was too late by then. The revolutionary wave had receded and suffered a defeat in Spain, as it had already in Russia, Germany and Austria. The workers’ resistance in Spain waned and had to be propped up with intense propaganda and coercion. The interests of the Republic, as upholder of the Nation, became paramount, not social emancipation. Anti-fascism thus replaced the vision of a classless society. Anti-fascism too was crucial for Stalinism to justify the Great Terror, and to deflect attention from Stalin’s underlying strategy of forging a pact with Hitler.

In Stalin, Willi Münzenberg and the seduction of the Intellectuals — part of the recent literature on the period — the American writer Stephen Koch explains the international dimension of the Spanish Civil War. Stalin wanted to reach an agreement with Hitler, whose military might he feared. In order to do that, he wanted to use Spain as a bargaining chip. In fact, to appease Hitler, he sacrificed his own supporters in Spain. Inside the USSR itself, he was decapitating his General Staff (who were anti-German) during the purges of the Great Terror. This was to show Hitler that the USSR wasn’t a threat and might even be an ally. The Great Terror also allowed Stalin to exterminate any possible threat to his total power. The gamble in Spain seemed to work. In 1939, Hitler and Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which allowed Germany and Russia to invade Poland without mutual fears. 10 That started WW2 in September but it didn’t stop Hitler from invading Russia in 1941! The Spanish Civil War ended in April 1939, with Franco’s total and unconditional victory.

This is part of the ‘macro—history’ that provides the backdrop to the 30s. Without grasping these events, it’s difficult to understand the seemingly isolated ‘personal’ events and tragedies of that period. The films Burnt by the Sun and Ai No Corrida depict fictional private tragedies in the same period of history. One happens in Russia as the terror of the purges engulfs all human relations and the other in a militarised Japan. The subtle overlap of the particular with the general emphasises the poignancy of these symbolic tragedies. Yet, in these films, as in history, the individuals were cruelly subordinated to the barbarism of the macro-level. All great works of narrative art have this dimension — a critical depiction of the mutual interaction between the general and the particular. It applies much less to the visual arts, and even less to music. In the mentioned films, the isolated monad, the particular, is defeated by the macro-level, by the false community that speaks in the name of individuals.

Franco’s victory brought immense suffering to thousands who emigrated to escape his terror. Many opponents, or ‘neutrals’ who couldn’t escape were massacred outright, tortured, imprisoned or couldn’t get jobs for years. But the victory of the other side (the Stalinist side by then) would have meant the same if not worse for many of those same people. By supporting one side of a conflict between gangs, humans become cannon-fodder (or at least dupes) of one of the gangs. That has been the fate of mankind this century. But it doesn’t have to be like this forever. Perhaps the memory of the initial emancipatory movement that existed in Spain in 1936 is part of a history that still has to be reappropriated.

The Spanish Civil War was the most important political event before ‘WW2; in fact, it was its preamble. The hundreds of thousands of workers and other civilians who perished in Spain, on both sides, were sacrificed for the dominant system of blocs, not for ‘socialism’. In this sense, it wasn’t ‘Spaniards’ or ‘Catalans’ or whatever who died, but part of humanity’s living hope.

The 1995 film Land & Freedom seeks to present the POUM, the Anarchists and perhaps the Trotskyists as heroic revolutionaries who defended a revolution ‘betrayed’ by Stalinism. According to this, Stalinism ‘opened the door’ to Franco. In reality the mentioned political groups supported the Catalonian Republican government, the Generalitat. In turn, this regional apparatus supported the Central government in Madrid. It thus supported its Army. This Army (controlled by the Stalinists after Negrín dominated the Popular Front) systematically militarised the workers. 11 Trotsky’s perspective in Spain was that workers should defend "the lesser evil". He wrote: "Only cowards, traitors, or agents of fascism can renounce aid to the Spanish republican armies. The elementary duty of every revolutionist is to struggle against the bands of Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler." 12 And: "We are ‘defensists’.... We participate in the struggle against Franco as the best soldiers [of the Popular Front Army],... 13 This perspective ignored completely that the Popular Front and its Stalinist supporters, in carrying out a prolongued civil war, had defeated the working class politically and socially, and decimated the most radicalised workers, a policy no different from Franco’s.

After May 1937, the Stalinists tried to openly exterminate the POUM, Anarchists and Trotskyists, who at last rose in Barcelona in a last desperate attempt at self—survival. These parties were seen as potential threats by the Stalinists and Negrín. But these parties had become isolated from the then militarised working class, The state machine they had supported turned against them and massacred them. They no longer had any coherent mass support. Their deaths, like all deaths, are to be deplored, but their own faith in lesser evils doomed them. What’s worse, their calls for support for the Popular Front’s military effort confused thousands of enthusiastic workers, who were then caught and mowed down in what became a merciless gang warfare. This lack of adequate consciousness in the working population is at the root of the tragedy. In the unfavourable world situation of 1936, one isn’t saying that the working population could have done differently. One cannot jump over one’s shadow, and only the benefit of hindsight allows one to be clearer on the events. 14

From the above, it is difficult to see how the contradiction between the individual and society — in national form in this case —‘ was resolved in Spain in July 1936. It certainly never was in the period after. The individual in July 1936, insofar as he belonged to a fighting community of labour, did take actions that reduced the chasm. Many accounts exist confirming that a real movement of emancipation took place. The narratives and histories of Mary Low and Juan Breá, Grandizo Munis, Carlos Semprún-Maura, Burnett Bolloten and many anarchist historians, in spite of their differing perspectives, provide persistent confirmation of what the working class in cities and the countryside did on 19 July and thereafter. The destruction of prisons (soon to be rebuilt by the Republic), the agrarian collectives where money was partially abolished, the democratically-run juntas and comités (before the CNT-FAI-UGT committees recaptured and expanded their own influence), the ability of the population to persuade the forces of law and order, and even Franco troops, to join them against the Franco onslaught. The vision of an emancipated life was being posed for real, it was being acted upon, even if the steps were faltering.

Michael Seidman’s various writings on Spain’s Civil War should be mentioned as indispensable studies on the role of ‘individualism’ during the conflict. These essays on working class ‘individualisms’ are provocative in that they suggest that any vision of emancipation that departs from the betrayal of individualism demanded by ‘sacrifice’ to a false, higher, collectivity is bound to provoke demoralisation and then resistance from the ‘atomised’ individuals. The particular and the general can enrich and propel each other toward emancipation only if there are no hidden agendas of domination:

"Thus, an analysis of resistance contributes to an understanding of a key function of the state in industrial societies and to the conclusion that one of the most vital functions of the state is to make workers work. During the 1930s, a weakened or permissive state encouraged resistance, whereas a repressive state — bourgeois or proletarian — reduced refusals to work. The growth and use of state power in Barcelona and Paris during the Popular Fronts cast doubts on the argument of the workplace utopians that in socialism or libertarian communism the state will wither away." 15

Seidman’s ‘cybernetic utopia’ also suggests that the overcoming of capital, and thus alienation, and the separation between the individual and the community, can’t be understood in terms of individual (or factory) reappropriation by workers of that which they produced. Today, in contrast to 1936, the amount of social abundance, the alienated social totality, would not require a ‘politics of labour’ but an immediate ‘socialisation’, a transcendence of all separations.

In Spain in 1936, the individual became lost once the class retreated from the social and political stage, once the permanent need to exchange experiences, to discuss and take decisions collectively and individually, was lost. The emancipation of consciousness needed that atmosphere as the most basic precondition: debate and reflection are aspects of self-activity. The false and totalitarian communities of nation and state reasserted themselves once the individuals lost their own general terrain, lost their, own autonomous momentum.

Simone Weil was much more prescient than Trotsky, Nin or any other supporter/participant in the Spanish Republic’s war against Franco. Her insights apply also to the course of WW2. In 1933 she wrote:

"Revolutionary war is the tomb of the revolution and will remain so as long as soldiers themselves, or rather, the armed citizenry, are not given the means of making war without a controlling apparatus, without police pressure, without a special court, without punishment for desertion. Only once in modern history was war conducted in this way, namely, under the Commune; and everyone knows how that ended. It seems that a revolution involved in a war has only the choice of succumbing to the deadly blows of the counterrevolution or transforming itself into a counterrevolution through the very mechanism of military struggle. The prospects of revolution seem therefore very limited, for can a revolution avoid war?" 16

And:

"The absurdity of adopting war as a means of antifascist struggle is thus quite apparent. Not only would it mean fighting against a barbarous oppression by crushing the peoples under the weight of an even more barbarous massacre; it would even mean extending under another form the regime we want to abolish. It is childish to suppose that a state apparatus made powerful by a victorious war would alleviate the oppression to which the enemy state apparatus has subjected its own people; it is more childish still to believe that a victorious state would let a proletarian revolution break out in a defeated nation without immediately drowning it in blood." 17

This scenario became a grim reality as Nazi Germany was invaded by Allied and Stalinist troops from the West and the East, at the end of WW2.

Analysing the Russian Civil War (1918-20), Weil remarked:

"This war imposed on a revolution that had a program calling for the abolition of the army, the police, and the permanent bureaucracy, a Red army whose officer corps was made up of czarist officers, a police force that lost no time coming down on Communists more harshly than counterrevolutionaries, and a bureaucratic apparatus unequaled in the rest of the world. These apparatuses were all a response to the necessities of the moment; but they were fated to outlast those necessities. Generally speaking, war always reinforces the central power at the expense of the people." 18

Weil joined the militias under Durruti in the summer of 1936, fighting in the Aragon front. After suffering an accident, she returned to France in September, quite depressed by what she had seen.

Here are some of her reflections, made in October:

"Alas, there we also see forms of compulsion and instances of inhumanity that are directly contrary to the libertarian and humanitarian ideals of the Anarchists. The necessities and the atmosphere of civil war are sweeping away the aspirations that we are seeking to defend by means of civil war.

Here we loathe military constraint, police constraint, compulsory labor, and the spreading of lies by the press, the radio, and all the means of communication. We loathe social differentiation, arbitrariness, cruelty.

Well, in Spain there is military constraint. In spite of the influx of volunteers, mobilisation has been ordered. The defence council of the Generalitat, in which our FAI comrades hold some of the leading posts, has just decreed that the old military code is to be applied in the militias.

There is compulsory labor. The council of the Generalitat, where our comrades hold the economic ministries, has just decreed that workers must put in as much extra unpaid time as might be judged necessary. Another decree stipulates that workers whose rate of production is too slow will be considered seditious and treated as such. This quite clearly means the introduction of the death penalty in industrial production.

As for police constraint: the police had lost almost all its power before the nineteenth of July. But to make up for that, during the first three months of civil war, committees of investigation, responsible militants, and too often, irresponsible individuals carried out executions without the slightest semblance of a trial, and consequently without any possibility of syndical or other control.

Nor did organized lying disappear after the nineteenth of July." 19

As said above, Simone Weil’s insights into the end of the emancipatoty dream of 1936 were prophetic. They are still relevant today.

The absence of simultaneous global workers’ emancipatory movements in that period is the ultimate cause for the failure of the revolution in Spain. Isolated in ‘revolutionary zones’ or ‘communes’, emancipated individuals and their communities can’t in the end transcend alienation and all the separations of a commodity society. This is because the conditions of domination are universal, and only a global co-ordinated insurrection could preclude their continuation.

Finally, what should we do with the historical memory of those tens of thousands of individuals in Spain, who in a wild festival of emancipation, confronted the ‘problem of the total human being’s self-realisation under the sign of freedom’? They left an unfulfilled promise of happiness for future generations. Their revolution was inevitable once they refused to sacrifice themselves for anything other than their own individual and communal interests, which were those of mankind. Once they abandoned, or were made to abandon, this universal task, they were devoured by a two-headed Leviathan.

"It is above all necessary to avoid once more establishing ‘society’ as an abstraction over against the individual. The individual is the social being. His vital expression — even when it does not appear in the direct form of a communal expression, conceived in association with other men — is therefore an expression and confirmation of social life. Man’s individual and species-life are not two distinct things,..." 20

A note on Lorca’s individual and Marx’s species being
Lorca’s tragic view of the individual’s quest for love fulfilment in modern society can have enriching parallels with Marx’s concept of man as species being. Where Lorca has a tragic view of the quest of love, fusing it at times with death itself, Marx’s views of human activity tend to be openly biophilic. These two views may seem opposite, but who could deny that death accompanies all human endeavour, including the quest for love? This may suggest too that the individual as species being, a child of Enlightenment classicism, can survive in the Romantic individualism of the 19C and even in the 20C avant garde. The idea and need for happiness, particular as well as general, may still contain a ‘radioactive radical nucleus’, as Vaneigem aptly suggests regarding Surrealism. 21 On the need for love, set always in the social context, Marx’s and Lorca’s views probably differ little.

In 1844 Marx advanced a view of death which would have challenged Lorca’s:

"Death appears as the harsh victory of the species over the particular individual, and seemingly contradicts their unity; but the particular individual is only a particular species-being, and as such mortal." 22

It is doubtful that Lorca’s dramatic vision of death would accept this austere recognition of necessity. Marx’s views were made from the standpoint of socialised humanity’. In Lorca’s dramatic universe, the world is strewn with traps, the harshness of suffering and of death can only be concealed by love. In El public Lorca conceived his characters as one-sided fragments of humanity, confronted by inhuman and magical forces that never allowed for reconciliation. Love, in masks, sweetened the approaching death. Yet the violence suggests that everything could fall apart at any time, even love.

But would Lorca have objected to:

"Man as an objective sensuous being is therefore a suffering being, and because he feels his suffering, he is a passionate being. Passion is man’s essential power vigorously striving to obtain its object." 23

Or to:

"...love can be exchanged only for love, trust for trust and so on. If you wish to enjoy art you must be an artistically educated person; if you wish to exercise influence on other men you must be the sort of person who has a truly stimulating and encouraging effect on others.... If you love unrequitedly, ie, if your love as love does not call forth love in return, if through the vital expression of yourself as a loving person you fail to become a loved person, then your love is impotent, it is a misfortune."? 24

Probably not.

Juan Mclver, February 2000

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Taken from the Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder? website.

  • 1. Leslie Stainton. Lorca, A Dream of a Life. London: Bloomsbury, 1998, 447.
  • 2. Ibid., 67.
  • 3. Ibid., 69.
  • 4. Ibid., 67.
  • 5. Gwynne Edwards. Notes for The Public, British première, London: The Royal Stratford East Theatre, 1988.
  • 6. Lorca. Plays: Three. Mariana Pineda, The Public, Play Without a Title. London: Methuen Drama, 1995, 78.
  • 7. Ibid., 68.
  • 8. Jonathan Beecher. The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier, Selected Texts on Work, Love and Passionate Attraction. London: Jonathan Cape, 1972, 335.
  • 9. TW Adorno. Minima Moralia. London: Verso, 1978, 172.
  • 10. Stephen Koch. Stalin, Willi Münzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals. London: Harper Collins 1995. Chapters 5 (127-145) and 10 (265-297) are particularly relevant. After this work, it will be difficult for surviving Stalinists who were active in Spain to deny that they were dupes or butchers for an imperialist power. Still, from time to time, defenders of the cult repeat the same sinister slanders against the POUM and the Trotskyists as ‘agents of fascism’. The exposed truth about the USSR’S role in the Spanish Civil War is also called a ‘leftover of the Cold War’. Koch is no defender of workers’ autonomy, but his work confirms what Stalinism and ‘anti-fascist fellow-travelling’ meant prior to WW2 (see below, bibliography note on Stalinist pamphlet by a one F. Graham).
  • 11. For a very clear and succinct description of the initial events of the revolution in Catalonia, and the subsequent counterrevolution, Carlos Semprún-Maura’s Revolución y contrarrevolución en Cataluña (1936-1937) is an exemplary text. Unfortunately, there is no English translation.
  • 12. Leon Trotsky. The Spanish Revolution. New York: The Pathfinder Press, 1973, 242
  • 13. Ibid., 289.
  • 14. The Italian Fraction around the publications Bilan and Prometeo — the so-called Bordiguists — were able to analyse accurately many of the underlying class contradictions that erupted in the Spanish Civil War even before July 1936. See Agustín Guillamón Iborra’s Los bordiguistas en la guerra civil española. Barcelona: Balance, Cuadernos Monográficos de Historia. 1994.The group that published International Council Correspondence in Chicago in the 30s was also able to grasp the situation, especially the May Days of 1937 in Barcelona, with remarkable clarity. See Paul Mattick, The Barricades Must be Torn Down, Moscow-Fascism in Spain. Chicago: International Council Correspondence, N. 7-8, August 1937.
  • 15. Michael Seidman. Workers Against Work, Labor in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Fronts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, 315-316.
  • 16. Dorothy Tuck McFarland/Wilhelmina Van Ness. Simone Weil: Formative Writings 1929-1941, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987, 245.
  • 17. Ibid., 246-247.
  • 18. Ibid., 249.
  • 19. Ibid., 256-257.
  • 20. Marx. Early Writings. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975, 350.
  • 21. Jules-François Dupuis (Raoul Vaneigem). A Cavalier History of Surrealism. Edinburgh: AK Press, 1999, 127.
  • 22. Marx. ibid., 351.
  • 23. Ibid., 390.
  • 24. Ibid., 379.