The Way Forward
By Eve Ottenberg
January 1st, 2020
Long after 1936, when the Spanish voted in a leftist government, many Latin American countries followed suit – Cuba with Castro, Chile with Allende, Brazil with Lula, Venezuela with Chavez and Maduro, Nicaragua with Ortega, Bolivia with Morales and others. Vernon Richards’ “Lessons of the Spanish Revolution,” reprinted some months back, makes one miserable inference very clear: the only people who’ve learned the lessons of the Spanish revolution are fascists in places like Bolivia and the U.S. government. Certain basic, obvious steps – like replacing reactionary military officers – are rarely taken. As a result – coups; and leaders like Evo Morales have to run for their lives.
One problem, however, has become less pronounced – certain internecine battles on the left. At the time of the Spanish civil war, anarchists and communists were at each other’s throats. The Latin American left’s divisions get less attention today, perhaps because over the decades it became clear that the enemy, backed by the U.S., is so strong that all leftists are targets for elimination. The counterrevolution has been busy, with one assault after another – most recently, with the attempted overthrow of the Maduro government, the imprisonment of Lula on trumped up charges in Brazil and a right-wing military coup in Bolivia. There’s little point in communists murdering anarchists when death squads, like those currently busy in Honduras, fill mass graves anyway with students, peasants and every leftist they can find.
“Lessons of the Spanish Revolution” anatomizes divisions on the left, and what emerges is a picture of how truly destructive of the revolution they were. From the anarchist perspective – and this book, originally published in the 1950s, is written from the anarchist perspective – the Spanish civil war led to repeated betrayals; betrayal of the anarchist revolution by the communists and by the anarchist leaders themselves. By the end, according to Richards, the revolutionary press was nothing but “the mouthpiece of the government and the ‘revolutionary’ chauvinists.”
This book attempts “to counter the enthusiasm on the left for the Popular Front and its communist partners.” For Richards and other anarchists, Stalinist Russia was as deadly as Franco – though in fact, it’s easy to see why any leftist who fought in the Spanish civil war might have become a Stalinist. The Spanish republicans received no arms from abroad from any leader except Stalin. No country beside the Soviet Union supplied this desperately needed weaponry. This is not to mute Stalinist crimes. They are multitudinous and well documented. And Richards justly calls out the murders committed by Russian secret police in revolutionary Spain. He argues, correctly, that the leftist government should never have dismantled the workers’ militias, but his opposition to any government, while principled – on the grounds that government of necessity kills the fighting spirit of any social movement – could well have led to an even swifter defeat by Franco.
The two issues for Richards and his fellow anarchists were the social revolution and the armed struggle against fascism. He argues that “it was Moscow’s intention to destroy Revolutionary Catalonia,” and devotes many pages to proving this point. Nowadays leftist have no such problems. The Soviet Union ceased to exist thirty years ago, and with it vanished all the support, betrayals and internecine left battles that it generated.
So things are simpler now, though without the threat of a communist superpower, fascism rises again. Leftist Mexican president Lopez Obrador, for instance, need not worry about Russian communists infiltrating his base. But he does have to worry about the U.S. empire fomenting a military coup against him. Reactionary U.S. forces have gone into hyperdrive – promoting regime change all over the world, while fascist wannabe Trump proclaims any available neoliberal imbecile the true president of any socialist country he wants to abolish. Leftists everywhere lack the very real strength of being able to threaten overpowering retaliation. They cannot count on China. Chinese socialism, led by billionaire party members, so far appears reluctant to play the role its Soviet predecessor played. China has been slow to aid besieged Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua or Cuba. As a result, splits between anarchists, syndicalists, communists and socialists matter less than in the past, so even do splits between varieties of feminism. To a certain extent, one can argue that the only thing that matters is whether a person is on the left or not. The enemy is far too strong to waste time on niceties of doctrinal difference. Death squads kill indiscriminately.
If Richards were writing today, it is doubtful that he would support any Latin American governments. He might encourage the Zapatistas in Mexico, though it’s hard to extrapolate from his book’s account of the byzantine, internecine battles of leftists in revolutionary Spain. One thing “Lessons of the Spanish Revolution” clarifies: though the world has changed since then, and radically, for leftists, for fascists it has remained much more static. They still overthrow socialist governments and murder leftists. But leftists are being forced to become less violently concerned with their splits or isms, and more pragmatically concerned with what always should have been the focus: survival. I guess that’s progress.