So-called left wing unity and the Spanish Civil War

By some accounts Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has blamed “English anarchists” for the Europe-wide discontent, while he addressed Italy’s Senate yesterday. It’s doubtful he is referring specifically to a small number of die hard Kroptkinites or even try hard “black flaggers” whose only knowledge of anarchism is through the lyrics of the Dead Kennedy’s. Who I suspect he is referring to is the student movement itself – proof, if any were needed, that their organisation and mobilisation is starting to put the willies up the establishment.

Much to its credit, the movement has been largely self-motivated, dealing with operations in small collectives. One of the consequences of this has been a widening separation between the National Union of Students leadership – under Aaron Porter – and the wider anti-cuts student movement in general. As far as effectiveness is concerned, whether or not Porter has publicly backed the students has not been a problem. However where there have been problems is in Porter’s “dithering” as to whether student occupations can rely on him for his support – which would make a difference to student representatives when present in a court of law – his inability to properly condemn heavy handed police tactics and whether legal aid is readily available to them.

In a comment I left at the Liberal Conspiracy blog yesterday, some people were quick to remind me just how expensive such a promise on legal aid would be – which it is hard to disagree with. However it was not me who promised it. If the disparity between what the NUS can afford and how much legal costs are is so high, why would someone, presumably in a position to know both amounts, make a promise like that. The efforts by many students to drive Porter out is based not upon a far leftist instinct to sectarianism, but on the question of leadership competence – which it looks increasingly as though Porter is lacking in (for a wry take on Porter’s failing leadership do take a look at Latte Labour blog).

One reason to oppose this ousting attempt is in faithfulness to something called “left unity” – brought to the fore recently by Sunny Hundal. In his piece on the “plot” to pass a no-confidence motion against Porter, he cites four reasons to oppose such attempts taking place: 1) It’s not a sensible move strategically at a time when the movement as a whole needs to be united, so as to be more effective; 2) it’s too early, particularly given that only a small proportion of students have taken part in an occupation; 3) the leadership is not actually getting in the way of the students wanting to take direct action; 4) if the no-confidence motion fails then it has only served to cause tension.

I’ve already taken into consideration the third point above, the second point doesn’t seem true within the ranks of the mobilised student movements involved, or previously involved, in university occupations, for whom the time for precise and dedicated action is now, and the need for adequate leadership is vital, and to point number four, the same could be said about any attempt – this certainly is no way in which to judge whether to act or not; as the American poet and Spanish Republican supporter Archibald MacLeish once said: “The man who refuses to defend his convictions, for fear he may defend them in the wrong company, has no convictions.”

As of Hundal’s first point, we get this age old adage “left unity”. But what does that actually mean? And how can we be certain unity on the left is not slightly arbitrary?

To explore this, what better subject is there than the Spanish Civil War. It has been said that “The Spanish Revolution is an object lesson, in the negative, of the need to forge revolutionary workers parties of the Bolshevik type.” The reason this could be said by a Spartacist front is because for them the Spanish Civil War was destined to fail on the grounds that the main left wing group (or the one considered principally most broad) were too willing to flirt with right wing workers and peasantry unions as well as bourgeois capitalist party systems in Catalonia. The origins of the POUM (Partido Obrero Unificación Marxista) – to whom George Orwell was joined when he fought in the war – already passed through phases of splinters and cells before properly coming to fruition. Andres Nin – who was murdered on the 22nd June 1937 by Stalinists – originally fell out with Leon Trotsky for opposing the move for the ICE (Communist Left of Spain), affiliated with the Trotsky founded ILO (International Left Opposition), to become entryists in the Spanish Socialist Youth, instead desiring to unite with the BOC (Workers and Peasants Bloc – considered on the right wing of the Communists). Eventually Nin founded the POUM, after which he was accused by Trotsky of “veer[ing] between reform and revolution” (it has also been stated that Nin curbed the revolutionary subjectivity of the workers in the POUM – whose fault it was not that they had such a lousy leader).

The actors in the Spanish Civil War knew who it was they wanted to keep from power – the mess of anti-Communists, Fascists and anti-Masonic, anti-Semitic Catholics who composed the Falange founded in 1933 by José Antonio Primo de Rivera – but what they wanted to achieve in the event of a victory was quite unsure. This issue had been dealt in a particularly diplomatic way between anarchists and Bolsheviks. As Trotsky himself had said on 17 December 1937 in a work called Lesson of Spain: The Last Warning, the anarchist workers joined on the Bolshevik road to revolution, but opposed the goals. The problems became far worse when questions started to arise as to whether this was a civil war at all or a revolution? Most groups involved agreed that defeating the fascists was the most pressing task. But even in the programme of the POUM the steps post-victory were towards a dictatorship of the proletariat – demonstrating it’s avowedly Leninist position. This didn’t sit particularly easy with the Stalinists, for whom worker power is a dangerous tool. It’s hardly surprising that many Stalinists, as well as Stalin himself, were to be considered counter-revolutionary, but it is slightly more surprising that the POUM were, and still are, themselves considered counter-revolutionary by cells of Trostkyites, Fifth Internationalists and anarchists.

Orwell fled as the in-fighting between Stalinists and Trostkyites took a turn towards extreme violence and loss of life (he was actually shot in the neck by some Communists). In spite of this Orwell chose to focus on the so-called Spanish character in his account of the war, Homage to Catalonia, as the reason why the Republicans did not succeed. The foremost scholar of the period Professor Paul Preston criticised Orwell for his lazy analysis of the disorganised Spaniard, instead looking towards other factors which explain why the Republicans couldn’t get the better of the enemy. One possible reason is that they spent too much time fighting themselves. However this may have been a necessary evil; after all if they hadn’t argued the toss about what post-victory looked like then, it would have been necessary to do it during the revolutionary period – whereby the infighting would’ve rendered their governance weak.

Actors in the civil war against Franco included PSUC (Catalonia United Socialist Party); FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation); POUM; CNT (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo) as well as anarchists, Communists, Socialists, Reformists, Liberals and everything in between in Barcelona. It is possible to gather these groups to a common purpose, but for a common goal it’s not possible, nor desirable (as a Socialist, I feel absolutely no need to want to bargain with anarchists for example). Stalinists were ideologically geared towards ruining the efforts of those actors, be that through in-fighting or providing gash weaponry from the USSR (it was Trotsky who accused Nin of being too hostile towards the Soviets, though had Trotsky listened to Nin, Stalinsim wouldn’t have been as relevant as it was to the war effort, and both men may have survived death at Stalin’s hands – another of history’s ironies), but real problems had already entered the consciousness’ of all involved – how was left unity possible when “the left” has never been linked to a set of coherent ideas/strategy? Why is it that it seems quite natural to call for unity on the left, when in fact for most of the time many of what counts for left wing ideas are in conflict with one another (something Sunny Hundal must realise, since a lot of his criticism has been directed at what he calls the “far left” who still are, whether we like it or not, on the left).

To draw this back to the original argument, about students wanting to see the back of Aaron Porter, and Sunny Hundal’s (frequent) call for left unity, first of all their call does not represent in-fighting, it has to do with the competence of their union leader. As for left unity, inasmuch as you can sit people down as diverse as anarchists and liberals in the debate against fees, it’s foreseeable that we can agree to a common enemy, but ridiculous to suggest aims and goals can be settled between these people. The problem in the Spanish Civil War among left wing actors was that post-victory apprehensions seeped through prematurely – but perhaps that was inevitable. Anyone who believes the problem with the students today is of left unity is wrong, but perhaps such a concept is a myth anyway.


2 Responses to So-called left wing unity and the Spanish Civil War

  1. Tom Miller says:

    What about context? All of these debates take place in situations where the primary threat to any of the various left utopias is that of a larger and more hostile right.

    I would posit that exactly the time to have these arguments is when that right is organisationally defeated.

    Of course, we need internal debates to run the constituent parts of our own movement. We need someone to take the minutes, and doubtless that person will have a particular political outlook.

    But it is far more productive to have this debate among ourselves than on Sky News. I think give and take between us is far more justified than allowing infighting to take up time that could be used fighting our much more powerful shared enemy.

    Once again, this is not to disown the plural outlook of successful broad fronts. I am not saying we should seek to shut down what are clearly contradictory strands in opinion.

    I am saying that we should all be happy for them to co-exist insofar as the most crucial victory still remains some way off, as a matter of tactical principle.

    • Of course what the Left want, more than anything I expect, is to undercut the right by any means possible, but left unity imagines a mythical unity which binds the Left together, as though it were a homogeneous thing. But I find myself agreeing more with Respublica than far left libertarians some of the time – am I danger to left unity or do I realistically accept left unity limitations?

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