Spanish Civil War Lesson
Issue date: 10/27/09 Section: Opinion
This past Thursday I attended the first meeting of Dr. Gordon Iseminger's History 300 class (O'Kelly Rm. 301, meets Thursdays 3:30-5:30, one credit). The topic of the class is the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). As Dr. Iseminger pointed out, this was a major turning point in world history, a testing ground for the European fascists' military might. As Noam Chomsky has argued (bad paraphrase), the scope of WWII was determined by the outcome of the Spanish Civil War. It stands to reason that if Franco (fascist leader in Spain) had been stopped, Hitler would not have felt secure being as brazen as he was in the following years and thus, some of the horrors of the holocaust would likely have been averted.
Okay, but WWII is over, what's the big deal? There were young folks, in their 20's from all over the world, the US and elsewhere, who volunteered to fight the fascists in Spain. In the US, this went against the wishes of the US government and after the war, resulted in prosecutions and jail time for some of those involved. Why were people willing to risk death or jail to fight a civil war in a country that they didn't even live in?
The answer to this question is perhaps the deciding factor in the political history of the 20th Century. The Spaniards who fought the fascists in Spain were not government forces, they were self-organized militias, consisting of a variety of political ideologies, primarily emerging from the far Left. The armies were completely, radically volunteer based- folks could go up to the front and fight as long as they chose to and leave the front whenever they chose. This may sound like a recipe for disaster, but it worked, and it has been argued that one of the main reasons the resistance lost was because the US was selling arms and munitions to Franco's fascist forces and refusing to sell to the resistance. The organization of society during the Spanish Civil War was based on an anarchist model (where the resistance was in control), especially in the cities. That is to say, self-organized councils of workers were running factories and farms, free from the coercion or wishes of (former) bosses. This lasted for three years, until Franco's forces overtook the resistance forces.
Those who went to Spain from abroad did so out of a commitment to an Ideal. They knew the importance of this war, what its outcome would mean to the world, and though most knew their efforts would be futile, as Dr. Iseminger pointed out, they fought anyway.
As Slavoj Zizek has argued, we live in cynical times. In his new book "First as Tragedy, Then as Farce" (about 9/11 and the financial crisis) he notes that it is almost impossible to imagine a cause to which one would be willing to give their life. He also points out that what is needed now more than ever, is a renewed commitment to the communist Idea, which is not to some revived Stalinism, Maoism, or a new Castro, but an honest acknowledgement of the failures of the Left in the 20th Century and a return (as Lenin would have argued) to the beginning again. The reason for this is not some utopia of an Idea that will never come to pass, but we keep working for it anyway, or some blind notion that the capitalist mode of exploitation of resources can go on forever. But more importantly that, things cannot continue the way they are going now, forever. He argues that true utopias emerge when we've run out of options and something new needs to be invented for our survival. In this case, he argues, if something new isn't thought up, then Italy's Berlusconi is our future.
One (perhaps the only) way to begin to think of something new is to, as Zizek/Lenin argue, begin at the beginning again. The Spanish Civil War provides the opportunity to return to the idea that perhaps there is something worth fighting for, worth dying for, that an Idea can unite people in a way that changes the entire social space (as Zizek would likely argue), as we witnessed recently with Iran. If any of this appeals to you, reader, I suggest attending Dr. Iseminger's Thursday lectures. It's too late to add the class for credit, but I'm not enrolled, and Dr. Iseminger told me to bring my friends. I guarantee, no one who attends will be disappointed.Stumble It!