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Hobsbawm’s Spanish Civil War

Eric Hobsbawm was given three pages to write a cover piece about the Spanish Civil War for the review section of Saturday’s Guardian. He produced a paean to the Communist and fellow-traveling intellectuals of the 30’s, who lost the war but won, he claims, a posthumous victory by “creating the world’s memory.”

The passage in which he deals with the handful of pro-Republican intellectuals who criticized Stalin exhibits Hobsbawm’s own relativistic attitude to the truth. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, he says, was turned down by his fellow-traveling publisher Victor Gollancz and given a “critical” review in the New Statesman (i.e., a hatchet job) because, as Orwell himself wrote, Gollancz and his ideological allies believed that “one must not tell the truth about what is happening in Spain and the part played by the Communist party because to do so would prejudice public opinion against the Spanish government and so aid Franco.”


Hobsbawm does not dissent from this craven toeing of the party line; indeed, even 70 years later he still supports it. Smugly, he recalls that Orwell’s book sold “so poorly that the stock was still not exhausted 13 years later” and concludes: “Only in the cold-war era did Orwell cease to be an awkward, marginal figure.” But who marginalized him? The Stalinist intellectuals, of whom Hobsbawm was one, tried to wreck his career and came close to succeeding.

Hobsbawm mentions that W.H. Auden “modified his great 1937 poem ‘Spain’ in 1939 and refused to allow it to be reprinted in 1950.” But he does not explain how and why. In fact, Auden rewrote two lines of the poem in response to Orwell’s criticism. What Orwell took exception to were the following lines, which he read as justifying Stalinist liquidation: “Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death, / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” Auden altered “deliberate” to “inevitable” and “necessary murder” became “the fact of murder.” Auden later claimed that Orwell had been “densely unjust” in his interpretation, but the fact that he excluded even the amended version of this poem from his Collected Poems suggests that he had a bad conscience about it. Indeed, the phrase “necessary murder” became notorious after Orwell attacked it, despite Auden’s attempt at self-censorship.

Yet Hobsbawm simply glosses over this and other examples of bad faith. For him, the dilemma for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War was about “Marx versus Bakunin.” He adds that “among those who fought for the republic as soldiers, most found Marx more relevant than Bakunin” and he concludes that the war “could not have been waged, let alone won, along Orwellian lines.” Well, the Republicans actually lost the war, not least due to the ruthless policies of the Soviet NKVD agents in their ranks. But Hobsbawm is peddling here the old Communist cliché that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” The fact that the Left’s sanitized interpretation of the war, which did indeed come to dominate its historiography, was utterly mendacious does not trouble him at all, either as a scholar or as a human being.

He has harsh words for the “mythology and manipulation of the regime of the victors” and “cold-war propaganda,” but not a word of criticism for the lies of the Communists and their apologists. He patronizes Orwell and ignores completely the other great writer about the civil war who abandoned Stalinism: Franz Borkenau, who was actually tortured by the Spanish Communists and whose justly celebrated book The Spanish Cockpit exposed their machinations. Nor does Hobsbawm mention the leading Spanish thinkers who, while rejecting Franco, rejected Communism even more strongly, among them Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno.
In short: vintage Hobsbawm.


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