Sunday, July 28, 2019


A few days ago, I took part in a panel at the Center for Political Education in San Francisco. It was one session of a class on "Countering the Right", and it looked back at the fascist conquests of Ethiopia and Spain in the 1930s. The participants were mostly young, a majority women and men of color, lively and very engaged. I had some difficulty reading my short talk on Spain, even in 20pt type, and questions had to be repeated for me. But I enjoyed the whole thing thoroughly.....

legacy of  "premature anti-fascism"

An advantage of being old is that you lived through historic events that happened before most people were born, and you remember some of them vividly if you shared them with people who were close to you.  I was 14 years old and in high school when the Spanish Civil War broke out. I had close friends, some only a few years older than I, who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and fought in Spain.  I remember the wife of Dewitt Parker sitting in our kitchen, being comforted by my mother day after day as she waited for news.  Dewitt never came back, he died in Spain.  I met Wilfred Mendelson when I went to a summer camp school on politics of the day, much like the one you’re attending tonight.  He was only a few years older than I, a student at City College of New York (CCNY).  He didn’t come back either.  An older friend, George Watt, did come back.  He was one who was able to swim the Ebro River in the last days of the war to escape Franco’s conquering army.  George later volunteered to fight in World War Two; he was shot down over France, where he was rescued by the French Resistance.

Why was the Spanish Civil War so important and why do its lessons register so strongly today?  Spain is considered the beginning of World War II, not so acknowledged by most people at the time, and the people who volunteered to defend the Spanish Republic are often called "premature anti-fascists".  Mussolini had already carried out his bloody conquest of Ethiopia.  That didn’t wake up the world, and much of the world was still in denial about fascism when Mussolini and Hitler sent their bombers and tanks to help Franco set up a brutal dictatorship that lasted for years after the end of World War II.

The world paid dearly for not waking up on time to the nature of fascism, for allowing Ethiopia and Spain to fall under the fascist boot.  For many years, actually through the first phase of the second world war, the major governments of the West -- Britain, France and our own USA -- were more focused on the “red scare,” the election of a leftist popular front democracy in Spain than they were on Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.  These governments and the League of Nations chose so-called “neutrality” which was actually a policy to blockade and strangle Spain while the fascists poured in their military might and turned Spain into their war games rehearsal for world war.  A man named Litvinof, the USSR's representative to the League of Nations, had a different message.  It was called “collective security.”  The thrust was that countries and governments, whether they be capitalist or socialist, liberal or  progressive, should unite to stop fascism.  It took quite a few years and a holocaust of many millions of lives from many nations before Litvinof’s formula took hold.

The world learned about the nature of fascism in the last century.  But current events urgently call for reeducation.  The danger of fascism grows out of the deepest problems of our society, out of a system in which greed and super-wealth dominate at the expense of human needs and rights.  It brings to power the most reactionary multi-billionaires.  While it is hardest on the poorest and most oppressed, its racist, nativist, misogynist divisiveness makes it an extreme threat to the broadest segments of society as a whole.That means that defeating fascism requires not only the courageous persistence of those communities under attack and their supporters, but it requires the broadest possible united efforts among people whose opinions and even interests are bound to differ.  That’s one of the lessons, the most important one, that’s left to us by the "premature anti-fascists" of the 1930s. If that proved essential when fascism threatened from abroad, it's as crucial today when the menace is emerging on home terrain.

Some historians of the Spanish Civil War focus on ideological conflict  between various factions of communists, socialists and anarchists. That conflict on the Left surely cast a shadow over those times. But 80-plus years later, what inspires is the  heroism of the Spanish people and the many volunteers who came from many lands to fight and die alongside them. The big story is the legacy left to us by the "premature anti-fascists" of the 1930s.

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