Blog-Viva La Quince Brigada
Click below to link to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive blog page for all kinds of interesting information about that important historic grouping in the International Brigades that fought for our side, the side of the people in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39.
As everybody probably knows by now who has following this blog for a time Ralph Morris and I, Sam Eaton, met down in Washington, D.C. on May Day 1971 on the football field at then RFK Stadium while being held by the D.C. police (although Ralph was picked off by a National Guard soldier who transferred him to D.C. hands as the division of labor played out that day) for having tried to shut down the government if it did not shut down the war, that war being the Vietnam War that tore our generation, our nation asunder. I had gone down to Washington that weekend before May Day with a group of radicals from Cambridge who were part of an larger affinity group which had planned to “capture” the White House and Ralph had joined a group of anti-war Vietnam veterans who had planned to surround the Pentagon, a less exciting but more possible task.
Inevitably we had been arrested well before achieving either of our objectives along with thousands of others who were outraged by that endless war and committed to shutting it down, shutting it down some damn way so don’t smirk when you read this (“endless war,” sound familiar?). Ralph had noticed me wearing a button on my shirt indicating that I was a supporter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and had asked me if I had served in Vietnam. Having been exempted from military service by a hardship deferment due to my being the sole surviving supporter of my mother and four much younger sisters after my father had died of a massive heart attack in 1965 I rather sheepishly told Ralph the story of how my best buddy, my closest “corner boy,” Jeff Mullins, had been blown away in some God forsaken village up in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and that had spurred me who had been really indifferent to the war before to get involved as an anti-war activist a couple of years before doing civil disobedience actions leading up to the big action in D.C. in 1971. Ralph that afternoon (and late into the night since we wound up being held for three days before we figured that some side exits were unguarded and scooted out of the place) had told me his story of how he had come out of the Army after serving eighteen months with a unit up in that same Central Highlands where Jeff had been blown away and had been so angry at the government for making him and his Army buddies what he called “animals” that on discharge he had lined up with VVAW (through a fellow soldier in him in whom he had kept in touch with while stationed at Fort Devens in Massachusetts before he time was up).
After many hours of talking and getting a feel for each other we thereafter joined forces, did a number of actions later over the next couple of years until the high tide of the 1960s ebbed and faded. We have remained friends throughout, although some years sporadically, and up until 2003 with the big invasion of Iraq would “do our duty” when some anti-war or social justice issue hit us between the eyes. Since then we have been on a steady diet of fighting the endless wars the last two American governments have immersed the country in without being any closer to the end than when we started.
After May Day 1971, and for a while after the high tide ebbed through about 1976 I think (and Ralph thinks that is about the right time frame as well) he and I would attend various study groups run by radicals and “reds” to find out about the earlier history of the left-wing movement in America and internationally to see if we could learn any lessons that might help us in our social struggles. The whole summer of 1972 was spent in one such group when I was living in a commune in Cambridge and invited Ralph to stay with me and get involved in one of the “red collective” study groups that were sprouting up then as people despaired over the old strategies and tactics that had ground us to a standstill.
One of the big events that we studied which held us in thrall, especially since neither of us were history buffs or knew much from our high school history classes was the fierce battle between the fascists and republicans in the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. Particularly the exploits of the International Brigades and the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the 15th Brigade that fought valiantly if forlornly on the Republican side. Many a night we would ask ourselves the question of whether we would have fought, fought honorably in Spain (assuming that the Stalinists who controlled entry, controlled the “politically reliable elements” that they vetted into the Abraham Lincoln would have let us in). We hoped we would have. As Ralph and I have been fighting the good fight against the endless wars this time around (everyone will agree that over a dozen years and counting with no end in sight qualifies for such a designation) we have taken advantage of the Internet to see what other organizations and individuals have been up to. One day when I was Googling I came up upon this Abraham Lincoln Brigade website and was intrigued by its offerings. I made some comments about it and about Spain in the 1930s on the site. Here is what I had to say (I wrote this but Ralph put in his fair share of ideas so it is a two person commentary):
This blog had gotten my attention for two reasons: those rank and filers who fought to defend democracy, fight the fascists and fight for socialism in Spain for the most part, political opponents or not, were kindred spirits; and, those with first-hand knowledge of those times over seventy years ago are dwindling down to a precious few and so we had better listen to their stories while they are around to tell it. Viva La Quince Brigada!
I have been interested, as a pro-Republican partisan, in the Spanish Civil War since I was in my twenties. What initially perked my interest, and remains of interest, is the passionate struggle of the Spanish working class to create its own political organization of society, its leadership of the struggle against Spanish fascism and the romance surrounding the entry of the International Brigades, particularly the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the 15th Brigade, into the struggle.
Underlying my interests has always been a nagging question of how that struggle could have been won by the working class. The Spanish proletariat (okay, okay working class) certainly was capable of both heroic action and the ability to create organizations that reflected its own class interests i.e. the worker militias and factory committees. Of all modern working class revolutions after the Russian revolution of 1917 Spain showed the most promise of success. Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky who had helped lead the successful October revolution and then led the military fight to defend the gains against the Whites arms in hands noted that the political class consciousness of the Spanish proletariat at that time was higher than that of the Russian proletariat in 1917. Yet it failed in Spain. Trotsky's writings on this period represent a provocative and thoughtful approach to an understanding of the causes of that failure. Moreover, with all proper historical proportions considered, his analysis has continuing value as the international working class struggles against the seemingly one-sided class war being waged by the international bourgeoisie today.
The Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 has been the subject of innumerable works from every possible political and military perspective possible. A fair number of such treatises, especially from those responsible for the military and political policies on the Republican side, are merely alibis for the disastrous policies that led to defeat. Trotsky's complication of articles, letters, pamphlets, etc. which were made into a volume for publication is an exception. Trotsky was actively trying to intervene in the unfolding events in order to present a program of socialist revolution that most of the active forces on the Republican side were fighting, or believed they were fighting for. Thus, Trotsky's analysis brings a breath of fresh air to the historical debate. That in the end Trotsky could not organize the necessary cadres to carry out his program or meaningfully impact the unfolding events in Spain is one of the ultimate tragedies of that revolution. Nevertheless, Trotsky had a damn good idea of what forces were acting as a roadblock to revolution. He also had a strategic conception of the road to victory. And that most definitely was not through the Popular Front.
The central question Trotsky addresses throughout the whole period under review here was the crisis of revolutionary leadership of the proletarian forces. That premise entailed, in short, a view that the objective conditions for the success of a socialist program for society had ripened. Nevertheless, until that time, despite several revolutionary upheavals elsewhere, the international working class had not been successful anywhere except in backward Russia. Trotsky thus argued that it was necessary to focus on the question of forging the missing element of revolutionary leadership that would assure victory or at least put up a fight to the finish.
This underlying premise was the continuation of an analysis that Trotsky developed in earnest in his struggle to fight the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution in the mid-1920's. The need to learn the lessons of the Russian Revolution and to extend that revolution internationally was thus not a merely a theoretical question for Trotsky. Spain, moreover, represented a struggle where the best of the various leftist forces were in confusion about how to move forward. Those forces could have profitably heeded Trotsky's advice. I further note that the question of the crisis of revolutionary leadership still remains to be resolved by the international working class.
Trotsky's polemics in that volume are highlighted by the article ‘The Lessons of Spain-Last Warning’, his definitive assessment of the Spanish situation in the wake of the defeat of the Barcelona uprising in May 1937. Those polemics center on the failure of the Party of Marxist Unification (hereafter, POUM) to provide revolutionary leadership. That party, partially created by cadre formerly associated with Trotsky in the Spanish Left Opposition, failed on virtually every count. Those conscious mistakes included, but were not limited to, the creation of an unprincipled bloc between the former Left Oppositionists and the former Right Oppositionists (Bukharinites) of Maurin to form the POUM an organization which almost consciously limited itself to organizing in vanguard Catalonia in 1935; political support to the Popular Front including entry into the government coalition by its leader; creation of its own small trade union federation instead of entry in the anarchist led-CNT; creation of its own militia units reflecting a hands-off attitude toward political struggle with other parties; and, fatally, an at best equivocal role in the Barcelona uprising of 1937.
Trotsky had no illusions about the roadblock to revolution of the policies carried out by the old-time Anarchist, Socialist and Communist Parties. Unfortunately the POUM did. Moreover, despite being the most honest revolutionary party in Spain it failed to keep up an intransigent struggle to push the revolution forward. The Trotsky - Andreas Nin (key leader of the POUM and former Left Oppositionist) correspondence in the Appendix makes that problem painfully clear.
The most compelling example of this failure - As a result of the failure of the Communist Party of Germany to oppose the rise of Hitler in 1933 and the subsequent decapitation and the defeat of the Austrian working class in 1934 the European workers, especially the younger workers, of the traditional Socialist Parties started to move left. Trotsky observed this situation and told his supporters to intersect that development by an entry, called the ‘French turn,’ into those parties. Nin and the Spanish Left Opposition, and later the POUM failed to do that. As a result the Socialist Party youth were recruited to the Communist Party en masse. This accretion formed the basis for its expansion as a party and the key cadre of its notorious security apparatus that would, after the Barcelona uprising, suppress the more left-wing organizations like the POUM, the left-anarchists around Durrutti and so on. For more such examples of the results of the crisis of leadership in the Spanish Revolution read this book which is available on-line at the Leon Trotsky Archives section of the Marxist Internet Archives for the year 1939.
"Viva La Quince Brigada"- The Abraham Lincoln Battalion In The Spanish Civil War (2006)
THE ODYSSEY OF THE ABRAHAM LINCOLN BRIGADE: AMERICANS IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, Peter N. Carroll, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1994.I have been interested, as a pro-Republican partisan, in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 since I was in my twenties. My first paper for a study group presentation sponsored by one of the “red collectives” that were sprouting forth in the early 1970s as disoriented and disheartened radicals and “reds” were seriously and studiously searching for ways to fight the American monster government after years of failure was on this subject. What initially perked my interest, and remains of interest, is the passionate struggle of the Spanish working class to create its own political organization of society, its leadership of the struggle against Spanish fascism and the romance surrounding the entry of the International Brigades, particularly the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the 15th Brigade, into the struggle.
Underlying my interests has always been a nagging question of how that struggle could have been won by the working class. The Spanish proletariat certainly was capable of both heroic action and the ability to create organizations that reflected its own class interests i.e. the worker militias and factory committees. Of all modern working class uprisings after the Russian revolution Spain showed the most promise of success. Russian Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky noted in one of his writings on Spain that the Spanish proletariat at the start of its revolutionary period had a higher political consciousness than the Russian proletariat in 1917. That calls into question the strategies put forth by the parties of the Popular Front, including the Spanish Communist Party- defeat Franco first, and then make the social transformation of society. Mr. Carroll’s book while not directly addressing that issue nevertheless demonstrates through the story of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion how the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and through it the policy of the Communist International in calling for international brigades to fight in Spain aided in the defeat of that promising revolution.
Mr. Carroll chronicles anecdotally how individual militants were recruited, transported, fought and died as ‘premature anti-fascists’ in that struggle. No militant today, or ever, can deny the heroic qualities of the volunteers and their commitment to defeat fascism- the number one issue for militants of that generation-despite the fatal policy of the various party leaderships. Such individuals were desperately needed then, as now, if revolutionary struggle is to succeed. However, to truly honor their sacrifice we must learn the lessons of that defeat through mistaken strategy as we fight today. Interestingly, as chronicled here, and elsewhere in the memoirs of some veterans, many of the surviving militants of that struggle continued to believe that it was necessary to defeat Franco first, and then fight for socialism. This was most dramatically evoked by the Lincolns' negative response to the Barcelona uprising of 1937-the last time a flat out fight for leadership of the revolution could have galvanized the demoralized workers and peasants for a desperate struggle against Franco.
Probably the most important part of Mr. Carroll’s book is tracing the trials and tribulations of the volunteers after their withdrawal from Spain in late 1938. Their organization-the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade- was constantly harassed and monitored by the United States government for many years as a Communist “front” group. Individuals also faced prosecution and discrimination for their past association with the Brigades. He also traces the aging and death of that cadre. In short, this book is a labor of love for the subjects of his treatment. Whatever else this writer certainly does not disagree with that purpose. If you want to read about what a heroic part of the vanguard of the international working class looked like in the 1930’s, look here. Viva la Quince Brigada!!