This was originally published on 11 May 2016 for the Language of Authoritarian Regimes |
There is an old and not necessarily edifying debate that has surrounded the International Brigades almost since their inception. Were the 35,000 men and women who travelled to Spain to defend the Spanish Republic during the bitter civil war of 1936-9 dupes of Stalin? Part of a grand plan to export communism to Western Europe and make Spain a Soviet satellite? Or should we no longer take at face value the volunteers’ own claims that they went to Spain to defend democracy against a fascist threat?
This debate was framed by the Cold War climate in which many early histories of the International Brigades were written; yet it has lingered long past the fall of the Berlin Wall. A middle ground, attempting to understand what it meant to be a communist in the context of 1930s Europe, alongside an appreciation of the implications of Soviet involvement and control of the enterprise, is only just emerging.
Lisa Kirschenbaum’s recent book opens up a fruitful avenue in discussing the cultures of the Communist International, the Soviet agency that directed and enabled the International Brigades. Teasing apart the logic, formulation and meanings of Stalinist discourse, the book unpacks the way in which it influenced the hodgepodge group of Communist functionaries from around the world that formed the link between Spain and the Soviet Union during the conflict, and for whom Spain represented an inspiring mission against the troubling backdrop of heightened internal tensions in the Soviet Union.
My own research on the International Brigades themselves further demonstrates the pervasive influence of Stalinist discourse. Most of the volunteers were Communists before Spain, and lived their lives in social and political spheres dominated by the Party and its language and expressions. While many engaged with Party discourse in a critical manner, their way of expressing themselves and understanding the world was still inexorably shaped by Stalinist logics.
This influence expressed itself in Spain in a myriad of ways, most obviously in the way that Spain’s political context was understood. Their enemies were fascists – there was no ambiguity there. Yet it was their internal opponents amongst the Spanish left who became most defined by Stalinism. Trotskyism became a label through which ideological opponents could be simultaneously identified and targeted, in a way that was readily understood by volunteers from Canada to China. This language seeped out of official communiques and into everyday conversation and correspondence.
The language of paranoia, sabotage and enemies within influenced how volunteers saw each other. Indeed, fluency in the international language of antifascism could act as a shibboleth once in Spain. Scottish-Canadian volunteer John Dunlop recalled meeting a German who failed this test in the heady days of his arrival into the multinational environment of the International Brigades staging camp:
‘We thought that he this man was really not one of us. That was the feeling that we had about him, because he did not seem to talk the same kind of language as ourselves. The whole atmosphere about him was different… The German was taken away and we never heard of or saw him again… We assumed, and I think rightly, that the man was a spy.’
This obsession with the language of Stalinism was reflected in the political surveillance of the volunteers. Terms such as ‘saboteur’, ‘provocateur’ and ‘trotskyist’ became convenient and relatively common labels for a range of ‘suspect’ individuals, which could lead to penalties ranging from ostracisation to indefinite incarceration. Real and perceived treachery was punished, although the extent of harsh political repression in the International Brigades is often overstated – reform was generally preferred to severe punishment.
More broadly, Communist discourse informed the way the International Brigades were run in a day-to-day sense. Problems in morale and discipline were understood as political problems; each set back was met by calls for more intensive political work and organisation amongst the volunteers. Even late in the war, ‘training’ was almost as likely to consist of a lecture on the political meaning of the conflict, as on the practicalities of modern warfare.
It would be a mistake, however, to allow the volunteers no room for their own agency in how they accepted and critiqued the discourse of the day. Some grew disillusioned and came up with their own narratives, either during the conflict or on their return. Many more came to terms with the mindset and justified it for their own reasons, and such decisions should not be treated with contempt born of hindsight of Stalin’s crimes at home.
There was also a great deal of space between outright rejection and wholehearted acceptance, and as ever individuals managed to express themselves in a variety of ways. My favourite such instance was in the satirical pages of a training camp newspaper. While ostensibly building on the frequent complaints about poor food, one author managed to slip in a clever critique of Stalinist norms, poking fun at the habit of ‘objective self-criticism’ as well as the use of poor ‘political understanding’ as a catch-all explanation for military and personal failings:
‘The writer would like to call to Capt. Johnson’s attention the following criticisms:
- During march, when rear patrol, sent out by American company, raided vineyard near kilometre-stone 14, they failed to bring up grapes for the main body (due probably to low level of political understanding, and lack of proper liaison.
- Re: the lunch: The coffee should have sugar, cream and coffee in it.
- Milk and graham crackers (tea and biscuits for the Englishmen) should have been served after every 15 minutes of marching.
- Instead of marching, the battalion should have advanced in lunch-wagons.‘
This example should not be taken as outright subversion or hostility to the latent Stalinism of the International Brigades. Yet it, along with many other examples, shows that to understand the influence of Stalinism in Spain it is necessary to view it not as a completely top-down totalitarian imposition on the minds and bodies of powerless individuals. Rather, it was a negotiation, which afforded the volunteers the chance to defy, question, critique or accept the logic of Stalinism on their own terms.
 Lisa A. Kirshenbaum, International Communism and the Spanish Civil War (Cambridge, 2015).
 John Dunlop in Iain MacDougall (ed.), Voices from the Spanish Civil War, (Edinburgh, 1986), p. 128.