• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Writers and Revolutionaries: The Spanish War

Yet Ernest Hemingway gave a special showing of his film Spanish Earth at the White House, to Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt, on July 8, 1937.

A more fundamental distinction than that between combatants and non-combatants who were nevertheless committed anti-Fascists was that between convinced communists and fellow travelers. Members of the “Auden generation” tended to be fellow travelers partly for personal reasons to do with their background, but mainly because they had already formed in their own minds sets of values which were not capable of being converted into communist ideology. When confronted by Fascism and the Spanish Civil War they assented to the communist answer because it was, to all intents and purposes, the most effective one given. They found themselves living in a world in which the democratic powers—all democratic freedoms being threatened—behaved like sleeping dogs. But they hardly doubted that, if roused, the democracies would defend their freedoms. The slightly younger generation who had been converted to communism and had “gone over to the proletariat” saw themselves in a very different world: one in which there was only communism and capitalism, and where Fascism was simply the most rabid, unconcealed, and violent release of the forces of capitalist imperialism.

The small left-wing magazines of the decade are full of controversy which consists, for the most part, of the communists attacking the fellow travelers. Mr. Weintraub and Miss Hoskins neglect this literature which throws light on what is perhaps the matter of most lasting interest about the attitude of writers toward Spain: an examination of conscience among modern writers as to what should be their attitude toward the ideological conflict which divided the modern world. Both authors refer to the answers given to a Left Review questionnaire, Authors Take Sides, but they do not describe the magazine, its contents and its place, in the running fight between party-line and fellow-traveling writers. Here, as with other periodical literature of the decade, an opportunity seems to have been missed.

They do discuss one minor classic of party line literary criticism. This is Caudwell’s Illusion and Reality, in which this brilliant young critic (whose real name was Christopher St. John Sprigg) attacks bourgeois literature as “illusion” and defends communism as “reality.” He bundles together D. H. Lawrence, Wells, Proust, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Wasserman, Galsworthy, and Hemingway (to whom, elsewhere, he added Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, and E. M. Forster) as (here I quote the excerpt given by Miss Hoskins):

men who proclaim the disillusionment of bourgeois culture with itself…[but are] not able to wish for anything better or gain any close grasp of this bourgeois culture whose pursuit of liberty and individualism led them into the mire…. [They are] pathetic rather than tragic figures, for they are helpless, not because of over-whelming circumstances but because of their own illusion.

John Cornford, in periodicals, wrote along the same lines, attacking members of the generation slightly older than himself. It was Nazism, in the first place, and, following it, the Spanish Civil War, which had dramatized for them this picture of black and white, the world divided into sheep and goats, with pathetic liberal rabbits in between. One could not save one’s soul or one’s art in such a world, one had to take sides in the struggle, have both forged in its fire.

At the same time it would be wrong to think of the phase of anti-Fascism which Cornford, Caudwell, Ralph Fox, and others represent—and in which they remain forever fixed by their deaths, as though cast in bronze—as Stalinism. They got their ideas from Marx and Engels and when they looked abroad they saw not Moscow but beleaguered Madrid. They had souls of a very untainted ideology and bodies of courage. They were not bureaucrats and they belonged to the International Brigade at that time when, although there was communism, there was also no saluting. They were individualists, and in defending Madrid gave the Republican cause, in its international aspect, much of its personal character.

I should emphasize that although they had sacrificed their writing (apart from the few poems they were able to write at the front) for “the struggle,” they did not think of themselves as renouncing literature. To paraphrase the gospels, they thought that the poet who loseth his poetry shall find it. And even if he did not find it—if he lost his life, that is—he could console himself with the reflection that it was impossible anyway to produce good work “under capitalism.” (This was the moral of The Waste Land just as much as of Illusion and Reality.) Self-immolation in action meant that one might be destroyed: but then, with the victory of the proletariat, a new culture would rise phoenix-like from the ashes. The word “new” in New Signatures, New Country, New Writing, etc. has, faintly, this connotation. Sam Levinger, a young American volunteer killed in Spain, gropingly expresses this thought:

Those who charge the guns will be remembered,
And from red blood white pinna- cles will tower.

A cliché of the Thirties was the opposite pairs, capitalism-death, communism-life. There was also an image of new life springing immediately from the life-death confrontation. The cause itself could be identified with death so long as death was merged in new life. As Edward Upward’s protagonist, the tutor in Journey to the Border, reflects, addressing himself, in a passage quoted by Miss Hoskins:

…in capitalist society there is no future for poetry or for anything worth while. There is no future for anything except tyranny and death…. Only the workers can save the things you value and love. All that is gentle, generous, lovely, innocent, free, they will fight to save. And in the end they will win. There will be a time of harshness and bitter struggle, but out of it will come flowers; splendor and joy will come back to the world. And life will be better than it has ever been yet in the world’s history.

There is a vision of the transcendence of personality, of the incarnation of the cause in the flesh and blood and nerves of the fighter dedicated to it, in Cornford’s lines:

Then let my private battle with my nerves,
The fear of pain whose pain survives,
The love that tears me by the roots,
The loneliness that claws my guts,
Fuse in the welded front our fight preserves

Men like Cornford, Caudwell, Ralph Fox, Julian Bell, and the young American James Lardner—all of whom were killed in Spain—conformed, in the fusing of their lives into their deaths, with the classical idea of tragedy at its purest: the ideal which the hero represents projected as idea into the world at the moment of his death.

How curious to reflect that, despite all the cynicism, brutality, and boredom of politics in our time, nevertheless it is radical politics which have produced the modern tragic martyrs and heroes—even when the protagonists were, on occasions, murdered by the side to which they had dedicated their lives!

It was implicit in the Nazi movement that all who opposed it would be annihilated, turned to ashes like the books burned by the SS thugs. The furthest secret of Fascist rule was the nameless human being—reduced to being a number—tortured in a prison cell.

A deep underlying motive of some anti-Fascists, including even those who considered themselves scientifically communist, may have been the felt need to share the fate of the anonymous victims, to identify themselves with the agony of those who had been deprived of their names.

During the Second World War, Simone Weil starved herself by refusing to eat more than she reckoned to be the ration of a prisoner in a concentration camp; and in Spain during the Civil War, she shared the life of the poorest people. Orwell lived “down and out” in London and Paris, and then in the home of unemployed workers in the North of England (much as James Agee lived in 1936 in the house of a typical sharecropper’s family in the South). In Spain he fought as a soldier on the anarchist Catalan front. For Orwell, joining the working class was not ideological (adopting a proletarian point of view which, in fact, very few of the proletariat shared), it meant living the conditions of life of the workers.

Orwell was fascinated by totalitarian politics, and he had some special insight into the ways in which men’s minds could be conscripted and controlled by the central authority in the police state. The liquidation of his anarchist comrades of the Trotskyite POUM in Barcelona, to which he bore witness, followed by the skillful propaganda campaign denouncing them as fascists, foreshadowed the methods of Big Brother which he described in 1984.

The basis of his animus against the communisant left-wing intellectuals was that they were fellow travelers, leading leisured lives, who approved of communism (which for him, after the liquidation of the POUM, had become identical with Fascism) without experiencing its methods, any more than they had experienced the life of the proletariat. The real reason for his famous denunciation of a line by Auden in “Spain,” “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder,” was not that he seriously considered Auden to be putting forward a program of mass slaughter, but because he felt that unless a man had witnessed political murder, he should not write poetry about it.

It is significant that, despite his hatred of communism, Orwell did not attack the communists who fought in Spain, who were of course far more ideological than the “parlor pinks.” He did not do so because the fact that they had experienced the conditions from which they derived their views—and had indeed, many of them died for them—silenced him.

What strikes one in all this is a certain mystique about a terrible experience which is the ultimate reality of modern life: a horror that, if experienced, will probably destroy you, but about which it is frivolous to make literature, if you have not experienced it.

The Spanish Civil War crystallized this feeling that the final reality—of Fascism, capitalism, and, finally, of Stalinism—was an incommunicable terror. The writers who fought in Spain had submitted to its testing, even if they were destroyed by it.

Ernest Hemingway’s position was close to this, though exceptional and sui generis. He went to Spain with the declared intention of writing about it. But no one was so foolish as to think that he had to submit to the test of the ultimate reality of the conflict in order to do so. He was the notorious exceptional case of a kind of War Horror Expert whose qualifications were already public knowledge. He was expected to write about war because war was his obsession. To him it was a pure condition of being, transcending even his loyalty to the Republican side.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print