Time for the Old Left to Come to Terms with What Happened in Spain

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Radosh is author of Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left and is a columnist for FrontPageMagazine.com.

For a response to this piece from Robert Whealey click here.

Last summer, on the anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, Yale historian Mary Habeck and I published what we hoped would be an important new book, Spain Betrayed:The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War. For decades, the mythology perpetrated by the pro-Communist Left and its legions of fellow-travelers have dominated the world’s understandings of the issues this war raised. To put it simply, the Spanish Civil War has been portrayed as a simple struggle of the evil Western appeasers of early Fascism on the one side, versus the beleaguered Spanish Republic. The Republic, supposedly, was protected only by the noble aid of the Soviet Union, whose arms were insufficient to prevent the victory of Franco’s Nationalist forces who were aided by the greater overwhelming military support given by Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany.

As always with the Left, there is a small element of truth in their analysis of events. Franco did get aid from Germany and Italy. But as I explained in an earlier column, the real issues are much more complicated. Most important of all, the record is clear: the Soviet Union fought not to preserve the existence of a democratic Republic under attack, but to gain control of the Spanish government in order to set the stage for what would have become, had the Republic won, the first successful “People’s Republic” such as those set up by the Soviets in Eastern and Central Europe at the end of the Second World War.

As we expected, the old Left and its academic allies had two ways to respond to the preponderance of evidence about the Soviet Union we offered---material gathered from the Red Army archives, which without the fall of the Soviet Union, never would have been available for anyone to see. They could either accept what the evidence showed or revise their simplistic good guys-bad guys scenario about the meaning of the War; or secondly, they could go on the attack and accuse us of biased anti-Communist scholarship. We found, first, that most of the official voices of the Old Left simply chose to ignore what was essentially a solid academic book. No review appeared in either The Nation, The Progressive or In These Times, the three most notable left-wing publications. Given the attention these publications have always paid to honoring the American volunteers who fought with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, we expected that in some fashion, they would not be able to ignore a book which received a great deal of attention, including a feature article by Sam Tanenhaus in Vanity Fair, a review in the daily New York Times, and favorable reviews in conservative and centrist magazines, including National Review, The Weekly Standard and The New Republic.

Now, after some time, the assault has finally arrived. It appeared in the January 11, 2002 edition of the London Times Literary Supplement, and was written by a lecturer in history and women’s studies at Oxford University, a former nun named Frances Lannon. Professor Lannon’s “review” was nothing less than a biased, all out assault on the book. In her diatribe—the kind of review usually not featured in a serious publication such as TLS---Lannon seeks to discredit our work with the usual spurious charges. She intimates that we somehow were disingenuous about the archives we used, that we ignore or unfairly and crudely castigate those historians whose interpretations supported the policy of the Popular Front desired by the Soviets and the Comintern. Lannon gives her game away, however, when she writes that “many on the Spanish Left had their own reasons to distrust the Anarchists and the anti-Stalinist POUM;” when of course, the Anarchists and the POUM were also legitimate groups on the Left. Clearly, like the Communists in Spain whose cause she thinks history has vindicated, Lannon reads all those on the Left not in the Stalinist orbit out of its ranks.

The impact of such an attack in a major literary and political publication simply cannot be underestimated. Its impact will be to revive the mythology, to persuade students not to examine the material in the book, and to undermine the work of those of us who have devoted our time and effort to telling the truth. The one thing that can be done in cases like this, of course, is to respond with the proverbial letter to the editor. The problem, however, is that TLS has responded that the following letter, offered here in its entirety, is simply too long---and hence cannot be run in its current form. And of course, an abbreviated letter of objection, that cannot answer her charges in detail---will appear only as “sour grapes” from rejected authors and hence ignored.

Against this backdrop, FrontpageMagazine.com has kindly allowed me to use my column this week to respond to Lannon’s attack and to post the full letter. I ask those readers of FrontpageMagazine.com, who have actually read Spain Betrayed, and who subscribe to or have read Lannon’s article in TLS, to consider writing their own letters to the editor in protest. Sidney Hook, the late anti-Communist intellectual, used to argue that no attack should go unanswered---that our obligation has to be to truth and for the integrity of history and the past.

Of course, when one is writing about the Spanish Civil War---an event painted one way only in the pantheon of false Communist history----one has to expect anything. Back in 1938, when George Orwell first published his now classic Homage to Catalonia, it too received a hostile and pejorative “review” in the British magazine, The Listener. Reading it, Orwell responded in a letter to the editor: “I do not expect or wish for ‘good’ reviews, and if your reviewer chooses to use most of his space in expressing his own political opinions, that is a matter between him and yourself. But I think I have a right to ask that when a book of mine is discussed at the length of a column there shall be at least some mention of what I have actually said.” It is now over sixty years later---and some things, it seems, never change.

To the Editor
Times Literary Supplement

In the vituperative and hostile review of Spain Betrayed by Frances Lannon, which appears in the 11 January issue of TLS, the author actually confirms one of the points we make in the book, that “the Spanish Civil War remains to this day a highly charged issue.” Evidently, what Ms. Lannon does not like about our book is the revelation that newly discovered Soviet documents clearly reveal, as Paul Anderson wrote in the left-wing Tribune in the Dec.21, 2001 issue, that our book “presents an incontrovertible case against the Soviet Union.” The case, as he sums it up, is that the USSR, “through its proxies in Spain,” sought to “hijack the Republican war against Franco’s Nationalist uprising, destroy the revolution and create a client puppet state.” Moreover, Ms. Lannon is upset because we make it clear that historians she cites, particularly Paul Preston and Tim Rees, are among those we think got the story wrong; we are so unfair to them, she concludes, that we have “crudely and wrongly castigated” them.

She calls our work “surprisingly polemical.” Actually, as any reader of our introduction can see for themselves, we make it quite clear that there are substantial and acceptable differences in interpretation on the question of the nature of the Popular Front---but that Paul Preston in particular, by labeling one of the major interpretations (i.e., the one that we believe to be accurate) to be the work of a “CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom” and made by an “unholy alliance of anarchists, Trotskyists and Cold Warriors,” himself engaged in the kind of rhetoric and canards similar to those “launched by the Soviet Union and the PCE against their ideological enemies at the height of the Cold War.” We wrote that such actually polemical arguments, appearing in scholarly works, “serves to cut off analysis and debate, by dismissing interpretations contrary to Preston’s own as discredited Cold War views.” In other words, we sought in our book to bypass such polemical writing, and to move the debate to a new and higher level.

Most commentators have understood this. Stanley Payne, a major historian of the Spanish Civil War, has written (LA Times Book Review, July 15, 2001) that we open “up the whole range of Soviet activity in Spain through the judicious presentation of an extensive set of original documents…carefully edited and annotated, providing the context that readers will need to make full use of the rich materials presented here for the first time.” Rather than let TLS readers know what much of this material reveals, of which Payne writes are “an absolutely unique trove of original documentation as illuminates Soviet policy and internal republic politics as no other previous work has done,” Ms. Lannon prefers to try and cast doubt about the veracity of the documents themselves.

She claims that we have no explanation for why we chose the included documents, nor do we state what archive they came from. Our book clearly identifies documents as coming from both the Russian State Military Archive (RGVA) and the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI), both well-known and respected archives as any scholar working with former Soviet archives well knows. Moreover, we included every lengthy and important document we found in its entirety, despite the publisher’s objections, precisely so readers would know that we were not omitting content that might change the understanding of the material. We did not leave out any political document pertaining to the Spanish Civil War, despite the unusual length of many of them. As for using documents from an “unnamed source,” the unfortunate political situation which exists in contemporary Russia prevents us from citing the specific archive from which some other documents came, because to do so would literally endanger the well-being of the source who made them available.

Christopher Hitchens, himself a man of the Left, writes in The Wilson Quarterly (Summer 2001) that “everything that was ever suspected about the Comintern line in Spain turns out to have been true.” Even Paul Preston, who candidly acknowledges his disagreement with out interpretation, writes in no less than the official publication of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, that our book “contains a mass of utterly fascinating material,” and that “historians will be in their debt for the light cast by many of the reports sent by Soviet and Comintern agents to Moscow,” and that “many of these documents present valuable new details to held us to understand the…problems of the Republic at war.” Despite what he sees as major problems with our interpretation, he calls our work “immensely valuable.” (The Volunteer, Dec. 2001)

Ms. Lannon writes that the Spanish Left had its own valid reasons “to distrust the Anarchists and the anti-Stalinist POUM,” and that the Popular Front “was a much more urgent priority than social revolution.” This, of course, is the heart of the matter. It is her opinion, as it was that of the Soviets and the Comintern. Her sentence, moreover, makes it clear that although the Anarchists were far larger in number and more important than the Communists, she obviously feels that they were not a legitimate part of the Spanish Left. She also errs in calling that Front “the policy of great numbers of Spanish Socialists and Republicans.” More importantly, Ms. Lannon incorrectly argues that our commentary is “at variance” with what is in the documents. Contrary to her assertion, it is clear from the documents that Soviet and Comintern policy was predicated upon the toppling of the Caballero government, that it viewed the new Negrin government as more pliable, (although not pliable enough) and that the main goal of their policy was destruction of the anti-Stalinist POUM and the Anarchists. Indeed, in one of our very first documents, Georgi Dimitrov lays out the basic policy pursued throughout the war. “We should not,” he wrote, “at the present stage, assign the task of creating soviets and trying to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat in Spain…Therefore we must say; act in the guise of defending the Republic.” The aim was to win the Civil War, gain control of the army, and make Communism a major force in Spain for the first time. As Dimitrov put it, “when our positions have been strengthened, then we can go further.”

Finally, Ms. Lannon ends by contending that “the vileness of Soviet methods in Spain” did not “prove the objectives wrong.” We would contend the opposite; the methods were in fact those most suited for carrying out essentially vile objectives. As Hitchens put it, the evidence indicates that Stalin and “his surrogates, by fighting harder against the enemy within…than against Franco, put their own interests ahead of the survival of democracy.” Ms. Lannon, it appears, is a member of what Tony Judt, in his review of our book in The New Republic (Sept. 10, 2001) calls “a goodly number of history professors…who are offended at the very notion of Communist duplicity or manipulation.” Judt, of course, thinks that “there has never really been any secret about the motives or activities of the Communists in Spain, who were directed and manipulated from Moscow.” Unfortunately, Ms. Lannon’s “review” proves that there are still those who, as Judt writes, are among “many of today’s smartest dupes” who persist in sustaining in place “the great illusions of the twentieth-century left.” We hope our book helps break down the persistence of such fairy tales, and that readers of TLS decide themselves about the validity of our analysis after reading Spain Betrayed.

Ronald Radosh
Prof. Emeritus of History
The City University of New York

Mary R. Habeck
Department of History
Yale University

This article was first published by FrontPageMagazine.com. and is reprinted with permission.

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More Comments:

Nick Mallory - 10/10/2002

The communists were as keen to destroy the anarchists in Spain as they were the Russian anarchists during the Russian Civil War after the Bolshevik coup in 1917. Democratic republicans, Anarchists and Communists alike united against Franco and one of the main reasons they lost was the fact that they all hated each other as much as they did him. Spain's success in reinventing itself as a modern western democracy almost overnight after Franco's death in 1975, like Portugal's, is a forgotten triumph. How different would history be if France and Britain had fought against both fascism and communism in Spain in the 1930's and helped liberal democracy triumph over its twin totalitarian threats. Would WW2 have happened? The cold war? Just a thought.

Philip Nash - 3/20/2002

First, if members of "the left" did admit they were wrong about the Spanish Civil War, how would Radosh react? Turn around and praise them with equal relentlessness for their intellectual honesty? I doubt it. He would—especially since he clearly sees the writing of history not as learning or discussion but as war, as seen in his repeated use of military language—declare this battle won and move on to bash the "Old Left" on some other issue.

Second, that is twice in a row now on HNN that Radosh has appointed INDIVIDUAL historians to represent all historians or all people on "the left." Well, as a liberal, oh, sorry, "leftist," I’m here to say I did not vote to elect either of his targets as my representatives. The strawmen he so bravely knocks down might be more convincing if they consisted of more than a single strand.

And finally, I’m getting the impression that on Planet Radosh there are three types of publications: the evil ones that publish negative reviews of his work; the evil ones that don’t review his work; and the good ones that publish favorable reviews of his work. I hope that someday, Radosh publishes a book that is warmly embraced by every historian alive so that we can be spared the otherwise inevitable letter in which he quotes positive reviews to dispute the negative ones.

Bud Wood - 3/20/2002

Radosh and Habeck suggest that the story of the civil war in Spain was that of a simple struggle of the evil Western appeasers of early Fascism on the one side versus the beleaguered Spanish Republic. Although I was not too involved in following events during the Spanish Civil War, the information that I got was that the war was one where the fascist states and the USSR were trying to impose their respective ideologies on the Spanish political entity and, not incidentally, were field testing some of their weapons. Maybe there was a myth, but it never seem to have any validity - - as far as I could discern.
Certainly, all involved in any conflict try to promulgate their our propaganda, but one doesn't have to study "An Idiot's Guide to Discerning Propaganda" to realize that.

Bud Wood

jane adler - 3/20/2002

Re the article title - "Come to turns" - assume this should be, rather "Come to terms"?