A brief 2006 essay on the topic of the “domestication of memory” perpetrated by the mainstream Spanish historians with regard to the Spanish Civil War, with particular emphasis on the whitewashing of the role of the Stalinists in the counterrevolution.
Spain, 1936 – The Exorcism of the Ghost of the Revolution – Andrés Devesa
“Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument.”
During the last few years of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st century a whole series of initiatives have been underway throughout the entire Spanish state aimed at the recovery of the historical memory that has been successfully rescued from oblivion, regarding some of the most tragic events in recent Spanish history, as well as the—collective and individual—memory1 of its participants. The victims of the civil war and the Franco dictatorship have been returned to the light of day, their role in history has been vindicated, their names and actions commemorated and the dignity stolen from them by fascism restored. This was a just and necessary labor concerning which the only complaint one might have is how long it took to happen, long after many of the men and women who participated in the events in question had died.
At the same time that this memory was recovered, however, there is another memory that is still being repressed. There are other victims of that same period in our history who have been silenced, forgotten, shunted aside in a dark corner, when they have not been miserably reviled and insulted. I am speaking of the victims of the Stalinist counterrevolution. Leftists, they were victims who died at the hands of executioners who claimed to be leftists. Anarchists like Camillo Berneri, POUMists like Andreu Nin or republicans like José Robles. Well known names and many others—very many others—who were anonymous. Revolutionaries who fought for an ideal, people with integrity who dared to denounce the Stalinist crimes or who simply crossed paths with the counterrevolution, saw what they should not have seen or heard what they should not have heard. Doubly defeated, doubly forgotten.
It is indispensable to recover the memory of these men and women as well, both in the individual and the collective sense of the word, which therefore implies that the historical memory of that revolution carried out by the Spanish people, a revolution that was clinically extracted by Stalinist surgeons with the collaboration of their republican “fellow travelers”, must also be recovered; for today, seventy years after the events, it is miserably silenced, denied or subjected to historical manipulation by those historians who are the direct heirs of the Stalinist riff-raff who massacred its supporters and whose mission they carry on today, silencing this “inconvenient” memory. Only if this task is undertaken shall we be able to speak of an authentic recovery of historical memory; anything less is nothing but deliberate amnesia.
Bourgeois Historiography vs. Revolutionary Memory
“The purpose of propaganda is to break down the spirit of the subject, persuade everyone of their powerlessness in reestablishing the truth concerning their surroundings and the uselessness of any attempt to oppose the dissemination of the lie. The purpose of propaganda is not only to succeed in making individuals refuse to contradict the lie, but even to make them never even think of doing so.”
(Encyclopédie des Nuisances, George Orwell ante sus calumniadores. Algunas observaciones, Second Revised and Updated Edition, Éditions Ivrea and Éditions de L’Encyclopédie des Nuisances, Paris, 2004, pp. 9-10.)
Mainstream historiography—whether liberal, social democratic or pseudo-Marxist—has silenced the Spanish Revolution, attempting to conceal both its concrete achievements as well as the very existence of the proletariat as a historical subject and motor force capable of carrying out a radical transformation of the world. “The role of academic historiography in late Francoism and during the transition was rabidly mercenary, since it consisted in dissimulating as much as possible and for obvious reasons the historical existence of the proletariat as an independent class, with its own revolutionary project that was partially realized during the civil war. This agreed-upon blind spot required an agreed-upon amnesia at the level of historiography.”2 The goal of Post-Francoist academic historiography was to induce collective amnesia in order to prevent the possible reestablishment of a theoretical and practical nexus between the revolutionaries of yesterday and those of today and to erase the record of a revolution that could have been and was not, and to prevent it from ever happening again. These same historians who denounce the neoliberal theory of the end of history do not hesitate to devote all their efforts to keeping us in the prehistory that we have never left, thus preventing history—which is nothing but the history of the class struggle—from being able to illuminate the perpetual night to which we have been condemned by capitalism.
Academic historiography can be nothing but the docile and servile voice of the masters from whose hands it feeds in their universities and research institutes. That is why its interpretation of the past is nothing but a justification of the present. Its main task is to attempt to establish a historical nexus between the current parliamentary monarchy and the republican experience of the thirties of the past century, both of which are supposed to be examples of the goodness of bourgeois democracy and of the best of all possible worlds in which they say we reside. But these idolaters of democracy overlook certain questions. First of all, they avoid speaking about the continuity of the current regime with respect to Francoism and, consequently, erase from history the memory of the ghost that haunted the Republic throughout its existence: the ghost of the revolution.
What we are told by the historians in the service of power is that what took place in Spain during the 1930s was only a struggle between fascism and democracy. The class struggle is denied, it is abolished with the stroke of the pen, but what the historians cannot do is hide the blot that stains history. In an attempt to dissimulate it, in their discourse the revolution is reduced to a historical anecdote, to the action of a radical minority, when it is not tossed in the same sack as the fascist coup, accusing the men and women who gave their lives to build a new world of having been the cause of the fascist uprising and for having contributed to bringing the democratic republican experience to an end. We thus find ourselves confronted by a topical vision of an ideal republic victimized by barbarous and violent extremists that caused it to founder.3 Opposites are said to be identical: those who sought a social revolution that would put an end to the exploitation and poverty to which the Spanish people had been subjected, a revolution that would allow the people to become the masters of their own fate, are identified with those who attempted to secure the chains that bound this people to a semi-feudal regime ruled by landowners and the Church and kept in line by the army and the Civil Guard. And all of this is carried out for the purpose of saving the reputation of that “third Spain”, that of the “progressive” sector of the bourgeoisie, whose intention was to abolish the feudal conditions in which the country was mired in order to stimulate the development of a modern capitalism comparable to the European version and to be able to continue to exploit, although perhaps in a more “rational” and “humane” manner, that same people, thus exorcising the danger of revolutionary outbreaks, a project that was opposed by the most reactionary sector of that same bourgeoisie. The civil war and the fascist victory postponed this modernization project, which had to wait until the Francoist “peace”—drenched in the blood of the workers—of the fifties and sixties for the technocrats of the regime to once again set about implementing this plan and for the years of the so-called democratic transition, when the politicians, trade unions and employers of the new democratic Spain finally got to work building the new European and modern capitalism.
This “progressive” view of history deliberately conceals, first, the fact that a vast number of Spanish workers and peasants fought for a social revolution, and second, the fact that this revolution was crushed by a pincer movement that was set in motion not just from Salamanca and Berlin, but also from Moscow, Madrid and Valencia. This history is expelled outright from dominant thought, which cannot admit either of these two facts or else at least dissimulates them or dilutes them in an abstract general discourse, since admitting their existence implies the recognition of the existence of a historical subject conscious of its power and unity—the proletariat—capable of fighting to break free of the bonds of the state and of the capitalist economic regime, as well as that of the historical reality of a struggle between these two forces, Capitalism/Proletariat—a struggle that must be denied to prevent its reappearance—in which the state and capitalism used all the available mechanisms of repression to extirpate the seed of the Revolution, mechanisms that it did not hesitate to utilize wherever necessary in order to maintain their rule. This historical knowledge compels the state to show its cards and if there is anything a good card-shark doesn’t like it is having to show his cards before the last round of bets. Only when repression becomes necessary because the party of subversion has appeared on the stage does this become necessary.
“The keg always smells of herring, and a Stalinist will always be in his element wherever one detects the stink of occult state crime.”
It is in the context of a class struggle that the Stalinist repression that took place during the Spanish civil war was inscribed, a repression that, together with the revolution itself, is concealed or ignored by the historians of the regime, when they do not distort its meaning and concrete circumstances in order to justify the repression and transform the victims into executioners and convert the latter into the heroes of democracy and freedom, as was the case with the servile opportunist Carrillo, who was raised up on the altars of democracy.4
On July 18, 1936 the fascist coup d’état took place and on that same day the workers and peasants took up arms, not to defend the bourgeois republic, but to raise the banner of the revolution and constitute the “people in arms” that would carry out the revolutionary transformation of society. The vicissitudes of the war and the incapacity and indecision of the revolutionary organizations in administering their initial victory5 caused the revolutionary situation of the summer of 1936 to come to an impasse during the following months and to begin to lose momentum, which was taken advantage of by the forces of the counterrevolution, led by the PCE, in order to destroy the revolutionary achievements and persecute their protagonists, in an attempt to erase every trace of the revolution. From the very beginning of the civil war and the revolutionary process, the Communist Party and its “fellow travelers”—Azaña, Prieto, Negrín, et al.—implemented a policy of obstruction, at first, and then of repression and disarticulation, when they felt they were strong enough, against the revolutionary attainments.
The PCE, a minority party before the beginning of the civil war, experienced massive growth both with regard to its membership as well as the degree of control it exercised over the mechanisms of state power and repression after the summer of 1936. This rise of the communists was the result of various circumstances. First of all, it was due to the international contradictions of the Spanish war, with the hypocritical Non-Intervention Pact, thanks to which, despite the ridiculously small amount of assistance that was sent and the high price that had to be paid for it, Stalinist Russia was able to present itself as the only great power that helped the Spanish republic in its war against fascism. The powerful Stalinist propaganda apparatus was immediately put to work to bolster Russia’s influence in Spanish politics and thus control a revolution that might prejudice the interests of Stalinism, particularly its relations with the democratic powers, France and England. The scale of Russian aid was exaggerated and the Stalinist propaganda began the task of erecting myths around Russia’s role in the war, such as that of the International Brigades, despite the fact that the first internationalists who came to Spain to fight against fascism and defend the Revolution were anarchists and anti-Stalinist Marxists who swelled the ranks of the CNT and POUM columns from the very first days of the war, months before the first units of the International Brigades arrived in Spain.
The second factor that explains the rise of the PCE is its alliance with the bourgeoisie as the vanguard of the counterrevolution and the only organization that could effectively lead it and act as a counterweight to the revolutionary workers movement. The bourgeois-republican parties promptly recognized that if anyone could contain the revolution and protect capitalism it was the PCE and they climbed aboard Stalinist bandwagon. This unity of interests made it possible for the communists to seek and obtain the prestige that they did not enjoy among the working class among the small businessmen, civil servants and representatives of the bourgeois left, who saw Stalinist discipline as a life insurance policy against the threat of the social revolution.
The Stalinists were gaining strength, occupying more and more posts in the government administration and imposing their views on the conduct of the struggle against fascism, such as the creation of a Popular Army—which logically passed for the most part into the hands of communist officers—which would replace the people in arms, the greatest guarantor of the revolution, and which in addition served to further increase the power, influence and prestige of the Stalinists, while simultaneously undermining that of the other organizations, which made neglect of their responsibilities and uselessness their maxims and were incapable of seeing the danger that was closing in on them. The revolutionary organizations, particularly the CNT, committed the very serious error of failing to address the question of power, in the belief that, once the social revolution had started, power would automatically collapse, swept aside by the emancipatory and creative force of the revolution. And this is the third key to understanding the victory of the counterrevolution, the lack of vision and determination on the part of a revolutionary left that was incapable of rising to the challenge of the circumstances and allowed itself to be dragged along by events, thus digging its own grave. A final assault on power was proposed,6 which was capitalized on by the Stalinists, who, for their part, did indeed have a clear conception of power and its mechanisms, as well as a sufficient unscrupulousness and political opportunism to use that power for the purpose of aborting the social revolution.
During the autumn of 1936, the Stalinists were gaining ground on the revolution with each passing day, until they were fully prepared and had acquired the necessary force to conduct the final assault that would unleash the witch-hunt and drown the revolution in fire and blood. The beginning of the final and definitive stage of the counterrevolution—which began on July 19, but which did not attain its clearest and most potent dimension until much later—may be situated in December 1936 with the exclusion of the POUM from the government of the Generalitat, and it reached its highest point with the May Days of 1937, when the militants of the CNT and the POUM confronted the security forces controlled by the PSUC in Barcelona after the provocation consisting of the attempted seizure of the Telephone building, which had been in the hands of the CNT since the beginning of the war. This “civil war within the civil war”, as it is often called, implied the clear crystallization of the positions of the forces of the revolution and those of the counterrevolution throughout the conflict, and ended with the defeat of the former, and the revolutionary team abandoned the pitch before the match even began.7 The death knell of the revolution sounded and the most tragic thing about it was that many of the anarchist “leaders” accompanied the forces of the counterrevolution in ringing the bells. When the CNT government minister García Oliver broadcast an appeal over the radio to the organization’s militants, asking them to put down their guns, surrender and abandon the revolution into the hands of its enemies, “there were those who fired their guns at the radio and who, ashamed of what they had heard, tore up their trade union cards. On the barricades they called Oliver’s speech ‘the legend of the kiss’.”8 Only a handful of resolute elements fully conscious of their historical role, such as The Friends of Durruti, attempted to resist and, most importantly, to elaborate a more or less cogent program, one that was, however, frankly aware of the serious situation confronted by the revolution.9
The May Days were followed by a wave of virulent repression, after a few days of apparent truce, in which numerous militants of the CNT, the FAI the Libertarian Youth and the POUM were persecuted, many of them ending up in the chekas of the Stalinist PSUC and NKVD. The POUM was outlawed, which the Stalinists did not dare to attempt to do to the CNT, which still had hundreds of thousands of militants ready to resist rather than allow themselves to be hunted down like rabbits—despite the intrigues and back door deals of their leaders. In June 1937, Andreu Nin, the leader and theoretician of the POUM and one of the most important intellectual figures of the left for two decades, was kidnapped by the NKVD and taken to a cheka in Madrid, where he was savagely tortured in an attempt to get him to confess that his party was in the pay of the fascists, which his torturers failed to obtain, which is why he was despicably assassinated and buried in a common grave.10 The counterrevolution had triumphed. In August, troops under the command of the Stalinist Líster could enter Aragon almost without opposition in order to dissolve its Council, arrest its members and proceed to destroy the collectives that had been operating in the region since the summer of 1936. The revolution was extirpated with blood and fire from the land of Spain. The crime was complete. The bells stopped ringing and a deafening silence struck at the hearts of thousands of men and women.
The True Image of the Past Rapidly Slips Away
“The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”
Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”, Thesis VI.
Seventy years have passed since the outbreak of the revolution. Its defeat was our defeat. The lands of Spain were drenched in blood and the heavy millstone of oblivion muffled the voices that tried to speak to us of these events. The assassins of the people and their accomplices joined hands with their necessary successors in order to together turn the key on the door of the sepulcher in which the dreams of an entire generation were interred and to prevent their being passed on to the succeeding generations. The ghost of the revolution was exorcised, but they could not, however, prevent it from re-arising thirty years later with renewed power when everyone thought it was forgotten. The fires blazed again and panic and celebration once again, although only ephemerally, recognized each other as brothers.11 Someone, however, once said that history repeats itself and in this country it seems that is just what is happening. The ghost was once again entombed during the times of our fathers by the same conjunction of forces and interests that buried it during the times of our grandfathers.
Today, those of us who are involved in an attempt to prepare ourselves amidst the ruins to reconstruct the foundations that will one day allow us to take the pulse of capitalism and the state and reanimate the ghost of the revolution with new vitality, cannot neglect to engage in the battle for memory. The exposure of the historical lie is a necessary task in the reconstruction of a critical theory capable of casting aside the obstacles that stand in the way of the construction of a practical truth that would be capable of daring to once again pronounce the revolutionary word. Exposing the enemies of yesterday helps us to expose the enemies of today, to recognize them and to name them as a precondition to combating them.12 Exposing them entails demonstrating that they are using their pens to do what their predecessors did with guns, just as their elements in academia play the same role that their predecessors carried out in the cheka, and that they would once again perform their old role in history if it were necessary. Exposing them means taking the side of history, the history of the class struggle, taking the side of the abolition of this old and exhausted world by creating a situation in which the “past, in each of its moments, [will] be citable”.13 It means once again believing in the eternal ghost of the revolution.
Translated from the Spanish original in November 2013.
- 1 For a modest analysis of the problematic concept of “historical memory” and its relevance for the Spanish civil war, see Andrés Devesa, “La domesticación de la memoria. Una reivindicación benjaminiana de la memoria histórica”, http://fcuatrocincouno.blogspot.com/2006/04/la-domesticacin-de-la-memoria.html.
- 2 Miguel Amorós, “Los historiadores contra la Historia”, Las armas de la crítica, Likiniano Elkartea, Bilbao, 2004.
- 3 As an example of this version of history we cannot resist citing the official historian of progress: Santos Juliá: “De ‘guerra contra el invasor’ a ‘guerra fraticida’”, in Santos Juliá (Editor), Víctimas de la guerra civil, Temas de Hoy, Madrid, 2004, pp. 29-30.
- 4 Not in vain did he spend seventy years of his life in the service of power and repressing all revolutionary possibilities, whether during the war, or from his comfortable exile in Stalinist Russia, or during the negotiations of the transition.
- 5 For a critical analysis of the revolution and the responsibility of the revolutionary organizations—especially the CNT—for the defeat, see: Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, Third Edition, Freedom Press, London, 1983; and Miquel Amorós, La revolución traicionada. La verdadera historia de Balius y Los Amigos de Durruti, Virus, Barcelona, 2003.
- 6 “At times all organizations are forced to cooperate, but this is only a postponement of the final reckoning. One group must control. At the same time that the anarchists were proceeding from ‘one success to the other,’ their position was continuously being undermined and weakened. The CNT’s assertion that it would not dictate to other organizations, or work against them, was in reality only a plea not to be attacked by others – a recognition of its own weakness.” Paul Mattick, “The Barricades Must Be Torn Down: Moscow-Fascism in Spain”, International Communist Correspondence, Chicago, no. 7-8, August 1937.
- 7 “The attitude of the CNT-FAI leaders was that the enemies of the revolutionary workers had wanted this struggle as an excuse to liquidate them and that they should therefore refuse to play the enemy’s game.” Vernon Richards, op. cit., p. 130.
- 8 Miquel Amorós, op. cit., p. 217.
- 9 For the text of their program, see their manifesto, “Hacía una nueva revolución”, Centre de Documentació Històrico-Social/Etcétera, Barcelona, 1977. [An English translation of this pamphlet may be found online (in November 2013) at: http://libcom.org/library/towards-fresh-revolution-friends-durruti (American Translator’s note).]
- 10 The issues concerning the detention and assassination of Andreu Nin were largely clarified by the documentary that aired on Catalonian public television, Operació Nikolai, directed by María Dolors Genovés, “Operación Nikolai o el asesinato de Andreu Nin”, http://www.fundanin.org/genoves.htm; also see Wilebaldo Solano, “La larga marcha por la verdad sobre Andreu Nin”, http://www.fundanin.org/solano8.htm.
- 11 Walter Benjamin, “Sombras breves”, Discursos interrumpidos, Vol. I, Taurus, Madrid, 1987, pp. 149-150. [From the essay, “Thought-Figures” (1933)—American Translator’s note.]
- 12 Gianfranco Sanguinetti, “Welcome to the Freest City in the World”, available in English translation online (in November 2013) at: http://www.notbored.org/freest-city.html.
- 13 Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”, Thesis III; available in English translation online (in November 2013) at: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm.