A proud history of radicalism

Post date: 27/03/2015

JACK THE BLASTER examines Spain’s rich tradition of left-wing politics, in an article that appeared in the Morning Star on 23 March 2015 (…


A proud history of radicalism


The history of Spanish radicalism is long and proud.


The Iberian peninsula became a crucible for the conflicting political philosophies of the 20th century and while the right wing was made up of fascists, monarchists and capitalists, leftward thought offered fertile ground for communists, anarchists and socialists.


Today, with Spanish capitalism in crisis and the country’s newest progressive party, Podemos, looking forward to a year of municipal, regional and then national elections, it’s worth recalling one particular story from the nation’s rich history of left-wing politics.


First, let us remember that the Spanish republicans and their kaleidoscope of left-wing groups were not truly defeated by General Franco.


Instead, these movements were crushed by the betrayal of European democracies who stood by while the German and Italian regimes poured support in to the fascists.


Much of what the Spanish left set out to achieve had begun to work before the rebels rose in July 1936.


Many of their plans for social equality, instigated on a small, localised scale, were providing a better standard of living.


It was one of the reasons the reactionaries were so desperate to crush the workers as violently as they could — and why the capitalist democracies were all too happy to let it happen, in case the Spanish successes inspired their own workers.


One of the British witnesses to the unfolding tragedy in Spain was the journalist John Langdon-Davies.


He was first sent to cover the 1936 May Day celebrations in Madrid by the News Chronicle. The Chronicle had a reputation for sending brilliant journalists to find out what was happening in Spain.


Arthur Koestler went to the country on its behalf and during the rebel attack on Malaga stayed behind under the protection of the British envoy Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell.


He would be caught by the fascists and kept prisoner, an experience that haunted him for the rest of his life.


He had previously written the book Spanish Testament, a critique of Franco’s regime that also published evidence of German and Italian intervention in the war.


After his arrest and subsequent release, he would pen the novel Darkness At Noon, which spoke of being captured by a totalitarian regime and held in solitary confinement.


Langdon-Davies’s book Behind the Spanish Barricades, published by Secker and Warburg, came out before Koestler’s and was one of the most complete appraisals of the Spanish situation available at the time.


In a period of lies, misinformation, underhand power politics and propaganda, his was a clear voice ringing through the fog of war.


Few knew Spain better — he had lived in a small village in the Pyrenees called Ripoli during the 1920s.


He had contacts on both sides. He did not simply believe what leftwingers told him — he knew it to be true by the litmus test of hearing the right’s reaction, and seeing first-hand the forces the republic were up against.


In Behind the Spanish Barricades, which is partly travelogue, partly political exposé and partly a plea for help, he writes of a few days spent in a Costa Bravan village that provided a model for a future Spain.


“We went to Port de la Selva, one of those surprises for people who persist in imagining that social experiments are only to be found in Russia and America,” he writes.


It was a small fishing village “in a fold of the Pyrenees,” he says, adding it is a place “whose beauty of its white buildings reflected in a bay of ultramarine.”


But it is not just a nice spot for an English reporter to get some lyrical copy, away from the intrigue of Barcelona street politics.


“What is important is that behind all the beauty, the picturesqueness, the tourist value, there shelters less than the normal amount of social injustice,” he writes.


He goes on to describe how the village is essentially “owned” by a fishermen’s co-operative.


“The fishermen own the tools of their trade, not only their nets and their boats but the curing factory, the stores and the storehouse, the refrigeration plant, the shops where daily necessities are bought, the olive oil refinery, the olive groves, the transport lorries to take the fish to Barcelona, the cafe, the theatre, the hotel and assembly room, everything they need and use,” he states.


An insurance scheme kept them looked after in times of personal hardship, with fair rules about subscription.


Each member paid a percentage of the value of their catches into the society’s funds and could borrow money if needed.


They offered benefits to the old and young, and even had their own currency, ensuring money would be spent in the village shops.


“In short, we have in this village beneath the Pyrenees a perfect example of a co-operative commonwealth in action,” writes Langdon-Davies.


“Here is a virtually classless society, for the only economic division is between those who own a boat and those who work in someones else’s boat, and there is no obstacle for any industrious person to pass from one to another.”


Langdon-Davies saw a lot in Spain he found admirable, and a lot he found hard to stomach, but his writing makes it clear the small village co-operative of Port de la Selva was a deeply admirable way to manage the affairs of a community for everyone’s advantage.


“To sit in the cafe at Port de la Selva is to sit in an atmosphere of free men, and no-one can understand Spain if he excludes from Spain this reality, for there is something very Spanish about Port de la Selva and its co-operation, the spontaneous local experiment in the art of living together,” he concludes.


Today, commentators like to paint Podemos as green political upstarts, say they have come from nowhere and therefore are too inexperienced and filled with wide-eyed idealism to be given any power.


However, surely they stand on the shoulders of the villagers of Port de la Selva?


Their draft manifesto calls for strong anti-corruption measures, for the renationalisation of oligopolies, stronger regulation of large corporations and a universal basic wage.


Such aims would ring true with the left of the 1930s. Such a programme, to the outside observer, could be seen as the revival of the Port de la Selvas project that has lain dormant for many decades, rather than the fairy tale wish list of an economically oppressed people.

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