Our arguments over anti-fascist violence today are absurd in comparison to what happened in the 1930s, when thousands of Americans traveled to Spain to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. We spoke to the man who wrote the latest book on it.
In 1936, a fascist general named Francisco Franco led a military coup against Spain’s democratically elected left wing government. The resulting civil war was in many ways a precursor to WWII. Hitler and Mussolini backed Franco’s Nationalists with soldiers, planes, and weapons; western democracies, though, refused to give equal support to the left wing Republicans, who were struggling to prevent a fascist military takeover. But tens of thousands of volunteers from across the world—including several thousand Americans, many driven by their beliefs in socialism, communism, or anarchism—flocked to Spain on their own and joined the fight. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade of American volunteers went down in history as one of the purest examples of left wing Americans fighting for their ideology. Hundreds of them were killed, and Franco’s forces eventually won the war, laying the groundwork for the fascist takeover of Europe and the carnage of the second World War. The war’s literary legacy includes some of the best works of George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway.
Adam Hochschild is the author of “Spain in Our Hearts,” a grand history of the Spanish Civil War told through the eyes of American soldiers and journalists who were there. We interviewed him via email about what Americans today can learn from their real antifa predecessors—and whether fascism is poised for a comeback.
Splinter: For a relatively brief time during the war, parts of Spain seemed to become true life examples of anarchist and/ or socialist ideals— social and economic equality on a radical scale. What made this period so special in modern history, and why didn’t it last longer?
Adam Hochschild: Except for the Paris Commune and a few other short-lived moments, little like this had ever happened in Western Europe. Workers took over factories, landless peasants took over the big estates where they had worked, trolley drivers took over Barcelona’s transport system; cooks, waiters and busboys took over the dining room of the city’s Hotel Ritz and turned it into People’s Cafeteria #1 for the poor. It was an amazing time.
But there were several reasons why it didn’t last. One was that making a successful from-the-bottom-up revolution is a mighty hard thing to do at any time, most of all when you’re in the midst of trying to fight a war against an army backed by Hitler and Mussolini. A second problem was that the government of the Spanish Republic was dead set against the social revolution. They believed that if Spain were perceived as a revolutionary society, it would kill any hope of persuading Britain, France or the US to sell them arms. (Not an unreasonable fear, but, as it happened, those countries still refused to sell the Republic arms even after the revolution was snuffed out.) And finally, the heart of the social revolution were the Spanish anarchists, who had a deep aversion to any kind of government—and to the use of money as a means of exchange. Noble ideals for a communal farm bartering with its neighbors, perhaps, but wildly impractical ones for a complex and industrialized economy.
Splinter: Why did the Spanish Civil War prove so attractive to so many Americans on the left, in a way that few if any other foreign conflicts have—attractive enough to convince thousands of Americans to fight for a foreign government? Was it the particular time/ place/ ideology, or something else?
Hochschild: It attracted volunteers not just from the United States but from more than 50 countries around the world. I think most of all because the major danger that people everywhere sensed was the spread of fascism, and here was one place where, literally, it could be fought. And a beleaguered, democratically elected government was welcoming foreign volunteers.
Splinter: The influences of Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights era, and the antiwar movement seem to have made the mainstream left in America strongly predisposed to nonviolence as a general philosophy. Can you see something like the Lincoln Brigades happening again today, or has the political moment changed too much? And do you think it would serve the left well to be more open to violent struggle, at home and abroad?
Hochschild: Although I think the Spanish Civil War was a just one, and I wish the Republic had won, I’m hard put to see a similar war in the world today. The one in Syria, for instance, certainly has an evil dictator to fight against, but some of the forces arrayed against him are no paragons of virtue and democracy. And in general, with only the rarest of exceptions, I’m in favor of nonviolence. That’s what won major gains in the United States in the 1960s, it’s what brought about the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the end of communism in Eastern Europe.
Splinter: Many people today see signs that fascism is making a comeback in the Western world. Do you see any parallels between today and the historical period leading into the Spanish Civil War and WWII?
Hochschild: I do. We’ve got demagogic leaders in many countries—the US, Russia, Turkey, Hungary and more—harking back to an imagined glorious past, blaming immigrants and foreigners for all their troubles, and doing their best to stamp out democratic institutions and press criticism at home. It’s a nasty period we’re in. But I do take heart from the fact that in the U.S., civil society, the press, and the judiciary are still strong and independent, and the level of resistance seems very high. But I don’t think we’ve seen the end of difficult times.
Splinter: Socialism and communism in America are much less mainstream ideologies today than they were in the 1930s. But their popularity, particularly among younger Americans, is certainly growing, and the popularity of Bernie Sanders proves that “socialist” is no longer a radioactive label in politics. What practical lessons can the American socialists of today take from those in the last century who followed their beliefs onto the battlefields of Spain?
Hochschild: I think the big lesson is that any form of socialism has to be democratic, from top to bottom. The great tragedy of Spain is that the only major nation that came to the aid of the Spanish Republic was not another democracy, it was Stalin’s highly repressive Soviet Union, then just embarking on a massive bloodbath of its own. The Soviets almost fatally tarnished the word socialism for a generation or two. I think we need to imagine a kind of popular control over the economy, whether it’s called socialism or something else, that puts power in the hands of democratically-controlled bodies, not an all-powerful party or totalitarian state.
Splinter: The refusal of America and other democratic nations to sell arms to Republican Spain played a big part in the Fascists’ win. Should the Spanish Civil War be taken as a lesson that the left should be more enthusiastic about supporting humanitarian military interventions, and should urge the US to use its military on behalf of progressive factions around the world?
Hochschild: No. I’m generally pretty wary of interventions, and certainly almost none of the ones the United States has engaged in in recent years have turned out well or were for a worthy cause to begin with. Spain was a rather unusual case, however: a democratically elected government hit by a military coup that initially just asked for the right to buy arms to defend itself. And, interestingly, Republican Spain had the money to do so. Spain had had the good fortune to remain neutral in World War I and so had not spent itself deep into debt as had all the other major nations in Europe, and so it had the world’s fourth largest gold reserves. If either the US, Britain or France had been willing to sell the Republic modern arms at the beginning of the war, it might well have been able to win the war. The people of Spain would have then been spared a 36-year dictatorship, and Nazi Germany would have been deprived of a de facto ally in World War II.
Splinter: You write a lot about the major role that Texaco played in helping the Spanish Fascists win the war, by supplying them with fuel and intelligence. Do you think that we’ve done enough to prevent global corporations from throwing their weight around in this way, or could something similar happen today?
Hochschild: No—we certainly have done almost nothing to prevent corporations from wielding power in whatever way suits their bottom line. There surely can be no more blatant illustration of that than the fact that the former head of the world’s largest oil company is now our secretary of state. Like the old East India Company several centuries ago, Exxon Mobil has more power than many a sovereign state. If its revenue were counted as gross domestic product, it would be among the world’s top 30 countries. It maintains private security forces wherever needed. Today’s world is one in which the dictator-loving Torkild Rieber, [chairman] of 1930s Texaco, would feel very much at home.
“Spain in Our Hearts” is now available in paperback.