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WRITERS TAKE SIDES, STALINISTS TAKE CONTROL: THE SECOND INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS FOR THE DEFENSE OF CULTURE (SPAIN 1937).

Descubri que la revolucion era hija de la critica y que la ausencia de critica habia matado a la revolucion

(Octavio Paz, 1993)(1)

Civil war in Spain became inevitable when an alliance of liberal, republican, and left-wing parties narrowly won the general elections of February 1936 and polarized the country into two irreconcilable camps. On the one hand were the victors, or Loyalists, a Popular Front coalition of moderates, socialists, anarchists, communists, and regionalist parties from Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque Country, each one seeking some measure of autonomy; on the other, a National Front consisting of conservatives, monarchists, clerics, Falangist groups, and the influential CEDA (Confederacion Espanola de Derechas Autonomas, or Spanish Confederation of Autonomist Right-Wing Parties). On 17 July, only five months later, portions of the army led by General Francisco Franco rebelled against the legally constituted government of Spain's Second Republic--promulgated in April 1931--and thus began one of the most violent and impassioned civil wars of the twentieth century.

When the struggle ended in April 1939, on the eve of World War II, democracy had suffered a humiliating defeat and fascism a major victory. Whereas Hitler and Mussolini shipped weapons and ammunition to the insurgents soon after the pronunciamiento, both France and Great Britain, fearing a general European war, adopted a policy of nonintervention in Spanish affairs. In this way, they effectively deprived a fellow democracy of the military assistance it urgently needed to put down the uprising. Partly to compensate for this policy, in the fall of 1936 the USSR began to send military advisors and technicians of its own, and also to organize the International Brigades. These consisted of about 35,000 volunteers, not all of them Communists, from 50 countries who journeyed to Spain to enlist in the fight against Spanish Army troops, at that time rapidly advancing on Madrid.

The international dimension of the Spanish conflict was not limited to political and military matters. One of the numerous anomalies of the war is that in July 1937, almost exactly one year after hostilities began, some 200 writers assembled over a period of two weeks in major cities in both Spain and France to support the people of Spain and proclaim their unrelenting hostility toward fascism. Participants in the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture represented approximately 30 countries, from Algeria to Iceland and Peru to China, as well as Great Britain, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union.

That the congress should meet at all was considered a major moral victory for the Republican government. It appeared to demonstrate unequivocally what antifascists everywhere had proclaimed over the previous 12 months: that few Spanish writers of international repute had allied themselves with the Nationalist cause.(2) On the other hand, many of the most prestigious writers and intellectuals of both Europe and the Americas had expressed unstinting support for the beleaguered Republic; and of these, a significant number made the difficult journey across the Pyrenees to show support for what had been termed "la republica de intelectuales."(3) This was a just cause, or so it was believed at the time, ill served by neutrality and non-intervention policies of nonfascist European countries, one that men and women steeped in a liberal humanist culture could espouse without compromising their time-honored belief in truth, reason, and justice.

Despite their seeming near-unanimity in supporting the Republican cause, however, the Writers' Congress in fact became a forum for many of the same ideological conflicts and partisan manipulations that ultimately would undermine the organization of the country's defense. My objectives in this essay are twofold: first, to provide a succinct overview of the Congress itself, and second, to show how it was subverted by Stalinist agents whose totalitarian objectives were fundamentally at odds with the antifascist intellectuals' belief in restoring democracy to Spain.

Ever since Mussolini's fascists had gained power in Italy in the early 1920s, and especially after Hitler's electoral victory in Germany in January 1933 and his subsequent exile of numerous antifascist intellectuals, European writers and artists of the left and center had shared an unprecedented sense of political unity. France in particular became a hub of dynamic activity that saw the creation or rapid growth of international associations, one of whose primary objectives was to protect the rights of refugees fleeing persecution by totalitarian regimes. The "Ligue mondiale contre l'antisemitisme," the "Comite de vigilance des intellectuels antifascistes" the "Ligue pour la defense des droits de l'homme," the "Comite Amsterdam-Pleyel," the "Comite mondial contre le fascisme et la guerre," and the communist-backed "Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Revolutionnaires" (AEAR) were among the most influential. Though based in Paris, they often had close ties with similar organizations in other countries. Spain, for example, had its counterparts in the "Alianza de Intelectuales Antifascistas" and the "Union de Escritores y Artistas Proletarios."(4)

In June 1935, at the Palais de la Mutualite in Paris, the First International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture convened under the presidency of Andre Gide, France's intellectual eminence grise. About 220 delegates representing 40 countries met to discuss such questions as the role of the writer in society; humanism; cultural heritage; nation and culture; and the problems of literary creation. At the behest of the Spanish delegates, it was decided that a second congress would convene two years later in Madrid. At a plenary meeting of the secretariat in London in June of 1936, the invitation to hold the conference in Spain was renewed and accepted.(5) Less than a month later Spain was engulfed in war. At the time, no one expected the war to last the better part of three years, but after it became apparent that the conflict would not be short-lived, the Republican government confirmed on 6 November 1936 that the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture would take place in Spain as scheduled in July 1937. At the same time, as a result of the rapid advance of Franco's troops upon the capital, the government also transferred its center of operations from Madrid to Valencia, where some of the conference sessions were to be held.

Even in times of peace, there are enormous difficulties in organizing an international congress, and when the host country is at war, these are greatly multiplied. Several governments, including the British, refused to issue visas to delegates, and it was primarily for this reason that a final session was held in Paris. However, not all obstacles proved insurmountable. English poet Stephen Spender has described how he crossed the Spanish frontier with a forged passport, under the name Ramos Ramos, obtained on his behalf by French delegate Andre Malraux, who also assisted other participants.(6) Pravda correspondent Mikhail Koltsov has outlined some of the administrative questions that had to be resolved in Spain itself, where the Alianza de Intelectuales Antifascistas had to negotiate with both the Catalan and the central governments, and three different ministries from each: Foreign Affairs, the Interior, and Education. Lack of a common language also proved problematic.(7) Nevertheless, after some preliminary celebrations--a reception at the Spanish Embassy in Paris offered by Ambassador Angel Osario Gallardo and informal speeches at the comisaria de la propaganda in Barcelona on 3 July--the Second International Congress for the Defense of Culture officially opened in Valencia on 4 July.(8)

Sessions were held in Valencia (4 July) and Madrid (6-7 July), and the proceedings were concluded in Valencia (10 July) and Barcelona (12 July).9 A final session took place at the Theatre de la Porte-Saint-Martin in Paris 16-17 July for the benefit of those Republican sympathizers who, like Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Mann, Paul Nizan, and African American poet Langston Hughes, were unable to go to Spain.(10)

The number of delegates and the reputations they enjoyed in the 1930s combined to make the Second Congress a truly remarkable event in twentieth-century European literary history. Certainly the Republican cause moved a generation of writers more than any previous (or indeed succeeding) war, with the possible exception of World War II.(11) Though the degree of unity was quite remarkable, claims in the pro-Republican press that all the world's greatest writers had assembled in Spain to support the Republican cause must not be accepted at face value. Many celebrated authors, including George Orwell, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Paul Valery, Henry de Montherlant, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, Jorge Luis Borges, and Andre Gide could not, or did not, attend the Congress. Nor did some antifascist writers such as Andre Breton, Marcel Martinet, Georges Bataille, and Henry Poulaille, who had serious reservations about the Popular Front alliance. One must also recall that Franco's pronunciamiento had many illustrious defenders, particularly in France, including Paul Claudel, Henri Massis, Charles Maurras, Robert Brasillach, and, for a while, Georges Bernanos.

The topics of discussion in Spain were virtually identical to those on the agenda of the 1935 Congress: the role of the writer in society; the role of the individual; humanism; nation and culture; problems of Spanish culture; cultural heritage; literary creation; aid to Spanish Republican writers.(12) Though the topics may now seem hopelessly utopian and even irrelevant in view of the rapid encroachment of Nationalist troops on the capital, they were chosen by an international panel of writers and intellectuals for whom fascism entailed, inter alia, the systematic destruction of culture. Despite several highly publicized incidents on the Republican side, such as the gutting of churches in Catalonia and Aragon, both the Madrid and Catalan governments were determined to take whatever measures they could to prevent the barbaric practices of Nazi Germany and the unabashed anti-intellectualism of much Nationalist propaganda--General Millan Astray's notorious "!Muera la inteligencia! !Viva la muerte!" inevitably springs to mind--from taking root in Spain. A primary objective for the government in hosting the Second Congress was to show the world that even in the midst of a civil war, the Republicans were concerned with protecting and transmitting the legacies of Spain's cultural past.(13) The editors of Commune, a French communist monthly and organ of the AEAR, carried the argument a stage further. Noting the combative roles assumed by such writers as Ludwig Renn, commander in the International Brigades, and Andre Malraux, who had commanded an internationalist air squadron, they pointed out that in Spain "culture" was no longer content merely to defend itself, but that it had "gone on the offensive"(14)

References to culture and the preservation of Spain's national patrimony are conspicuously absent, however, from the inaugural address Spanish Prime Minister Juan Negrin delivered in Valencia on 4 July 1937 on behalf of the president of the Republic. Negrin's presence was prompted less by protocol or a personal commitment to questions of a cultural character than by the opportunity to interpret before an international audience of distinguished writers and intellectuals the events shaping the destiny of the peninsula. Negrin also sought to promulgate a Republican view of the war that might appeal to the United States, the democracies of Europe, and all those who by subscribing to the policy of non-intervention had effectively abandoned Spain and were indirectly colluding with the Axis Powers. The official nature of the Congress and the importance it held for the Spanish Cabinet can be judged by the presence in Valencia of a government advisory committee that included Jesus Hernandez Tomas (Education and Health), Jose Giral y Pereira (Foreign Affairs), Julian Zugazagoitia (Minister of the Interior), Bernardo Giner de los Rios (Public Works), and Julio Alvarez del Vayo (former minister of Foreign Affairs).

Negrin had been in power for just about six weeks when the delegates started to arrive in Madrid in early July. His appointment on 17 May was part of a chain of events that month that underscored the fractiousness of the Republican leadership. The "events of May," as they came to be known, signaled a major turning point in the defense of the Republic, not just politically and militarily, but also morally and psychologically; and they also foreshadowed the disaster for the Republicans that lay ahead.

In Catalonia, opposition among members of the CNT (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo, or National Labor Confederation) to the rapid growth of the communist party and its concomitant political influence escalated into open insurrection against the "counter-revolutionary" People's Alliance of Marxist parties. Because of the support they enjoyed among large sections of the Catalan working classes, the CNT, a formidable presence, enjoyed powers that neither the central government in Madrid nor the autonomous government in Barcelona (the Generalitat) had managed to regulate. The CNT maintained that power-sharing between working-class parties and their hereditary enemies had resulted in compromises and half-measures that merely bolstered the bourgeois state and often weakened the resolve of revolutionary movements. On 4 May, backed by the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista, or Workers' Marxist Unification Party), a coalition of two leftist-socialist parties formed after the Asturian miners' revolt of October 1934, the anarchists openly rebelled against the People's Front. Thus began what has been euphemistically labeled the "street-fighting of Barcelona" ("los combates callejeros de Barcelona") or, more simply, the events of May. Though the uprising was quashed in a matter of days, an estimated 1500 lives were lost.

The insurgents' defeat had far-reaching consequences for the Republic in the ensuing weeks. To begin with, the POUM leaders were arrested and imprisoned, and then the party itself was dissolved. Furthermore, the Spanish prime minister, socialist leader Francisco Largo Caballero, who in previous months had resisted the demands of the communists for greater control of the war effort, felt he had little choice but to resign. He was succeeded by Negrin, generally considered to be more sympathetic to the Popular Front. So, shortly before distinguished guests started to arrive in Spain for the Writers' Congress, the Republican goal of a united antifascist front had been completely shattered.(15)

According to Dr. Negrin, the civil war began as a "military revolt" against the legally constituted government of Spain and then evolved into "a struggle for national independence." Though the reference is clearly to both Italian and German involvement on Franco's behalf, Negrin did not elaborate on the international aspects of the conflict. Instead, he stressed the universal character of the conflict, declaring that it represented "a struggle for freedom and the independence of Humanity." The Republicans were indeed fighting to maintain fundamental liberties that a fascist victory would inevitably destroy--as history has since shown--and certainly the destruction of democracy in Spain was a regressive step, with far-reaching consequences for all of Europe. Moreover, a welcoming address to an assembly of official guests of the Republic was hardly the place for an overview of a decidedly complex military and political situation. Still, in equating nobility and Humanity with Spain--"our soldiers are defending a noble cause, the cause of Spain; but they are also defending the cause of Humanity"(16) the Prime Minister ignored the numerous socioeconomic issues and political questions (the aforementioned events of May, for example) that were a permanent obstacle to Republican unity and ultimately would lead to its defeat in the spring of 1939.

Negrin's vague analysis set the tone for the rest of the proceedings. Despite the presence of so many leading antifascist writers, it is difficult not to concur with the secretary to the French delegation, novelist Andre Chamson, who observed that the intellectual level of the Congress had been "appallingly low."(17) As Stephen Spender wrote after in fall 1937, "[F]ew of the Congress--feted, banqueted, received enthusiastically, the women bridling with excitement at Ralph Bates' or Ludwig Renn's uniform--had even glimpsed, that the war is terrible, that the mind of Madrid, if it is sublime, like Shakespeare's, is also terrible, like Shakespeare's."(18) Years later, even Ehrenburg recollected that in "the summer of 1937, in Madrid, the writers' speeches did not resound."(19)

All delegates expressed sympathy for the Republican cause and declared their unconditional support for the heroism of the Spanish people. A few, like Malcolm Cowley and Andre Malraux, even said that it was impossible to treat literary and philosophical questions while Spain was under siege. Some treated the Congress as a gathering of learned societies and read academic papers; others used it to advance partisan purposes. Many participants related the war in Spain to the struggle against repressive regimes in other parts of the world: Nazism in Germany (Willy Bredel, Bertolt Brecht); the rule of Mussolini in Italy (Ambroglio Donini); military dictatorship in South America (Carlos Pellicer); racism in Cuba and in the United States (Nicolas Guillen, Langston Hughes); and Japanese aggressions in Manchuria (Koltsov and the Chinese delegate Seu). All present proclaimed their unswerving hostility to fascism and its imperialist ambitions.

In addition to the speeches, delegates passed numerous resolutions, sang national anthems and the International, read aloud messages of solidarity from absent intellectual luminaries such as French novelist Romain Rolland and even Albert Einstein, and observed moments of silence to honor the dead. Soldier-authors in attendance such as Gustav Regler, as well as Renn and Malraux, were greeted with standing ovations, and writers killed in action, such as Ralph Fox and John Cornford, were commemorated with solemnity. Anecdotes and personal reminiscences were woven into speeches that on the whole were characterized by rhetoric and superficiality, exaggerated generalizations, and repetitiveness. Small wonder then that, years later, Stephen Spender should stigmatize the event, perhaps a little unfairly, as "a spoiled children's party" a "circus of intellectuals."(20)

Could it have been otherwise in a country at war, where bombings during the actual Congress served as a constant reminder of the dangers endured on an almost daffy basis by the people of Madrid? The euphoria that had greeted news of the Republican victory at Brunete on 6 July--"the most sanguinary struggle of the entire war"(21)--obscured the fact that, notwithstanding Madrid's prolonged resistance, the democratic forces were still in danger of losing the war. The Republicans in fact could not sustain their 6 July breakthrough, and between 19 and 26 July (after the Congress ended), they retreated almost to their starting positions But congress delegates, honored guests of the government, could not reasonably have criticized openly its handling of the war effort, its difficulties in dealing with the social changes being wrought by collectivists, or the internecine struggle for political control. In any case, few delegates would have been sufficiently knowledgeable about these factors to be able to discuss them with any degree of assurance, and there is little evidence that they addressed issues that were not of a moral or symbolic nature.

The manifesto issued at the end of the proceedings and printed in communist publications in several countries was in this respect fairly predictable. AEAR writers proclaimed that Fascism was the principal enemy of the culture they had undertaken to defend; they declared themselves ready to use all the means in their power against Fascism and its warmongers; they affirmed that neutrality was impossible in Fascism's war against culture and democracy; they solemnly appealed to those who naively retained the illusion that it was possible to remain neutral, and they paid tribute to Republican Spain, her people, her government, and her army.

None of this is particularly surprising, and had the proclamation ended there, there would be little cause for comment. In the concluding paragraphs, however, the signatories explicitly cited Soviet intervention in Spanish affairs:
   They salute in [Republican Spain] the champion of the democracies, the
   guardian of culture and of peace, as the Soviet Union, as well as those
   nations which followed its example, has nobly demonstrated in lending its
   fraternal aid to the Spain of freedom.

      They undertake to defend Republican Spain wherever she is threatened,
   and to win to her cause the waverers and the misled. Finally they state
   here most definitely their unshakable confidence in the victory of the
   Spanish people.(22)


The explicit reference to Soviet assistance suggests that the Writers' Congress was not merely an expression of solidarity for "la republica de intelectuales" and support for her defense of culture, or indeed only an endorsement of the recently constituted Negrin cabinet. Since the USSR was providing military assistance, it was understandable that the Republic should express its gratitude and, in so doing, denounce the nonintervention of the democracies. At the same time, this overt tribute to Soviet policy underscores a dimension of the Congress that was not always apparent to many of the participants: Stalinist agents in Spain were consolidating their hold over the organization of the Republican war effort at this time, and they used the Congress as a front for pro-Soviet propaganda.

Stalin's callous manipulation of Spain has been recounted by several historians, most notably by Stephen Koch in his Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas Against the West (1994). This chilling account of Stalin's reign of terror, based on Central Party Archives and other important primary sources, traces the development of the Popular Front strategy--that communists should cooperate with all noncommunist antifascists, formerly reviled as "social fascists"(23)--promulgated at the VIIth Congress of the Communist International in the summer of 1935 in Moscow, and examines its devastating effects on Republican Spain's efforts to win the war against Franco. As early as September 1936, writes Koch, "all Comintern operations in Spain [were] placed under the direct control of the Soviet secret police, and it was simultaneously decided to use that secret police to take over total command of the Spanish Communist Party."(24) Julian Gorkin estimates that the number of "conseillers politiques, agents policiers et techniciens militaires" amounted to approximately 2,000, excluding agents of the GPU, the Soviet Russian secret political police.(25) Though Koch only mentions the Second Writers' Congress in passing, he meticulously documents the historical and ideological backdrop against which such a seemingly innocuous event can be better understood. A small cog in the vast wheel of Stalinist machinations, the Writers' Congress was nonetheless made to serve a broader campaign of systematic disinformation.

The very day the congress was inaugurated, Alexis Tolstoi praised the USSR, extolling its progress since the Revolution, and Koltsov lauded the new Soviet Constitution as a "sublime document."(26) At the concluding sessions in Paris, at least two speakers made extravagant claims for the achievements of the USSR: the Chinese delegate Seu said that the Soviet Union "represented social justice for all countries," and Louis Aragon declared that the communist state had "saved human dignity."(27)

At the First International Congress of Writers in the summer of 1935, several Soviet or pro-Soviet writers, notably Ilya Ehrenburg and Louis Aragon, had viciously attacked antifascists who opposed Stalin's Popular Front policy, including Leon Trotsky and his followers, the anarchists, and certain surrealists, specifically Andre Breton. One unusually tempestuous session was almost entirely sabotaged when Stalinist intellectuals attempted to prevent Magdeleine Paz from expressing sympathy for Victor Serge, a militant and writer who had been expelled from the Russian communist party in 1927 and deported to Orenburg in March 1933. It was only after a bitter struggle that Paz, representing the non-Stalinist antifascist intellectuals, was able to state Serge's case.(28) Evoking the spectacle years later in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1902-1941), Victor Serge explained that while the Congress had convened upon the initiative of Main, Barbusse, Rolland, Gide, and Malraux, "the actual initiative came from certain communist back rooms that specialized in organizing congresses of this kind." Their purpose, he said, had been to create "a pro-Stalinist movement among the French intelligentsia and buy over a number of famous consciences."(29)

In early 1936, in an interview with Derek Kahn of the English communist monthly Left Review, Aragon recalled that particular incident. When asked to comment upon the distrust that many non-communist antifascists would feel for such notions as "proletarian dictatorship" and "Soviet censorship," the ex-surrealist replied:
   That point of view was put forward by Victor Serge at the Congress last
   summer, but we haven't heard much of it since. It has been noticed how
   often the Trotskyists have been in line with reactionaries on important
   questions such as the Abysinnian war. At the same time, the development of
   the Front populaire has brought writers much nearer the masses and shown
   them that they have nothing to fear from their rule in the way of
   restrictions on their liberty of expression.(30)


The interview concluded with Aragon's tribute to the spirit of tolerance and goodwill that supposedly defined the Popular Front Alliance:
   But within our cultural movement of the Left there is no reigning dogma nor
   dictatorship of styles. There are within it many Marxists, many who dislike
   Marxism or do not understand it. All are able to cooperate freely in our
   common policy for the defense of culture, just as in the realm of politics
   they are able to cooperate for Bread, Peace and Liberty.(31)


The same sentiments were echoed by Koltsov a year later at the Second Congress in Spain: "Republicans, anarchists, marxists, catholics, those who don't belong to any party, there is simply room for everyone in the ranks of those who struggle against the common enemy: Fascism."(32)

All, that is, except Andre Gide and the Trotskyists. "The Writers' Congress was divided over the issue of Gide" Stephen Spender recalled in 1951, and there is no doubt that much time and energy were expended trying to defuse the tension created by Gide's writings on the USSR.(33) In November 1936, shortly after Stalin's decision to supply Spain with arms and equipment, a move that was partly inspired by the democracies' continuing adherence to the Treaty of Non-Intervention, Gide published Retour de I'URSS.(34) This slim volume, primarily a series of impressions of a visit to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1936, had already created a minor scandal while still in manuscript form.(35) It represented an astonishing (though not entirely unpredictable) volte-face by Europe's most distinguished communist sympathizer. Its appearance in Paris that fall gave rise to much controversy and threw the left into utter disarray.

Though the book is not entirely hostile, least of all to the Russian people, who are treated with warmth and sympathy, it is unmistakably an overt indictment of Stalin and his policies: "We were promised a proletarian dictatorship. We are far from the mark. A dictatorship, yes, obviously; but the dictatorship of a man, not of the united workers, not of the Soviets"(36) Gide denounced Pravda, the state-controlled newspaper, for its abject conformism and its doctrinaire promulgation of the party line; he condemned the classless society as "disindividualising" and "dehumanising"; and, above all, he shocked and outraged many antifascists by his comparison of the Soviet Union to the Third Reich: "And I doubt whether in any other country in the world, even in Hitler's Germany, thought be less free, more bowed down, more fearful (terrorized), more vassalized." In order to disassociate his disillusionment with Stalin from his acknowledgement of Soviet aid to the Republic, Gide added the following conciliatory remarks, at a late stage, to his conclusion: "The help that the Soviet Union is giving to Spain shows us what fine capabilities of recovery it still possesses. The Soviet Union has not yet finished instructing and astonishing us."(37)

Still, Gide's comparisons were so damaging to the Popular Front alliance that at least one historian, David Wingeate Pike, claims that the Communists organized the Second International Congress partly to denounce Gide.(38) Escolar Sobrino's contention that Stalin himself gave the order to ban Gide from the congress is entirely credible, though there is no supporting evidence.(39)

The bitterness resulting from Gide's work and the timing of its publication was intensified by its sequel, Retouches a Mon Retour de I'URSS, which appeared only a few weeks before the Writers' Congress was scheduled to open in Spain. In it Gide reiterated his earlier accusations.(40) Spender vividly remembered the hostility occasioned by Retouches, noting that there was "a hidden theme constantly discussed in private and almost as often dragged on to the open platform: This was: the Stalinists versus Andre Gide."(41) The Soviet delegation, particularly Koltsov and Ehrenburg, correspondents in Spain for Pravda and Izvestia respectively, attempted to arrange Gide's public condemnation and expulsion from the communist-funded AEAR. Ultimately, it was the lot of Jose Bergamin, a Gide admirer, to defuse the matter at a Madrid session on 8 July. Speaking on behalf of the Spanish and South American delegates, he criticized the imbalance of Gide's book and appealed for solidarity:
   There are two peoples today who stand together in this struggle, and these
   two peoples are the Russian people and the Spanish people. Soviet writers
   and Spanish writers deeply understand this human solidarity.

      Consequently, when a book, which claims to be only critical, but which
   is in fact insulting, attacks the Russian people, and Soviet writers in
   particular, we, the writers of Spain, repudiate everything that might
   generate animosity with the Russian people or Soviet writers.(42)


This mollified neither the Soviet delegation, as Koltsov's diary makes clear, nor Aragon. At the closing session in Paris, the French poet called Gide a traitor, "one who, through his skill in manipulating ideas and words, serves the few, instead of serving the people."(43) Malraux in turn felt that these attacks were unwarranted and refused to speak at the Paris session.(44) Gide was accused of betrayal, complicity with fascism and inevitably, given the political climate of the times, denounced as a Trotskyist. Ironically, Gide seems to have anticipated this criticism in Retour de I'URRS: "All those who do not declare themselves to be satisfied," he wrote, "are to be considered Trotskyists."(45)

Trotsky's "opposition of the left" had been represented at the 1935 Congress, though in relatively small numbers, but this was not the case two years later in Spain. It is therefore all the more remarkable that their absence in 1937 should be judged as dangerous as their presence in 1935. This is of course due to Trotsky's acerbic and well-documented indictments of the Comintern, its failures in China and Germany, and his condemnations of Stalin, whom he held directly responsible for stifling the revolution and betraying the Soviet people. The exiled creator of the Red Army denounced the Popular Front as a self-defeating alliance with the enemies of genuine social revolution, a sellout of working-class aspirations and a retrograde step that merely served and strengthened middle-class interests. When the Second Congress was opened in Spain in July 1937, two of the sinister Moscow trials (involving Grigori Evseyevich Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov, and Lev Borisovich Kamenev, founding heroes of Leninism, then Karl Bernhardovich Radek, Yakolevich Sokolnikov, and Yuri Pyatakov) had already run their course. Of the few remaining Russian revolutionaries of the old guard, Christian Rakovsky, Nicolai Ivanovich Bukharin, Alexey Ivanovich Rykov, and Trotsky, the latter clearly posed the greatest threat. This was not just because Trotsky claimed to be the true follower of Lenin or because he was establishing the Fourth International, factors that are of undeniably great significance, but because he exposed and dismantled the machinery behind the trials. Trotsky had revealed and denounced Stalin's tactic of condemnation by association. That Alexis Tolstoi and Koltsov openly inveighed against the exiled revolutionary--whether on their own initiative or upon instructions--at a Congress in support of Spain is further evidence of the power and influence Trotsky wielded in Stalin's eyes. According to Jorge Semprun in La deuxieme mort de Ramon Mercader, Trotsky threatened Stalin precisely because he represented the "memory of the revolution."(46)

The apparently gratuitous attacks on Trotsky made a sham of Aragon's statement that there was no "reigning dogma." Rather, they emphasized radical differences among parties of the left and revealed the precariousness of the Popular Front strategy. More damagingly, they inevitably focussed attention on setbacks undermining the Republican war efforts, for which the Stalinists were known to be partly responsible: the events of May 1937 in and around Barcelona; the reign of terror in which GPU agents systematically assassinated political enemies, specifically the liquidation of the POUM and the torture and murder of Andreu Nin, one of its founding members; the suppression of the people's revolution, which was opposed to liberal democracy in those parts of Republican Spain where anarchist collectives had been established; and, finally, the gradual infiltration of the highest levels of government by Stalinists or their agents, as Koch has shown. For many participants at the congress, most of these factors became evident only well after the war had ended. Even Ehrenburg recalled how the speeches of Soviet writers who vehemently prescribed the "liquidation" of enemies of the people "surprised and disturbed" many Spaniards(47); and John Lehman, editor of the Penguin New Writing, noted how these and other congresses,
   full of dust and fury, of remorseless quarrels behind the scenes as well as
   upon the rostrum.., sometimes resulted in surprising attacks upon the
   pro-Communist line to which their organizers, or the political wire-pullers
   behind them, tried to keep them attached.(48)


In a limited way, the Second International Congress was a microcosm of the civil war being waged within the Republican camp itself.

Despite Stalin's manipulation, the Writers' Congress was successful in that in countries like the United States, it provided a partial corrective to Franco's tendentious presentations of the civil war as a crusade against the encroachments of international communism, even though the U.S. government continued to adhere strictly to the terms of the Neutrality Act of 1935. It established that new and more terrifying forms of warfare were being pioneered in Spain, and that, according to Andre Chamson, the struggle in Spain was less a civil war than a war between civilians and the military. It showed that a clear majority of politically active writers and intellectuals of the left and center had identified themselves with the Republic, and in this regard it was undoubtedly a source of encouragement to those Spanish people who opposed international fascism. On the other hand, dire warnings about the irresponsibility of nonintervention and prophesies about Spain as a prelude to world war fell mostly on deaf ears. The process leading to European capitulation to Hitler in Munich in August 1939 was by that time virtually irreversible, or so it now appears since, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see more clearly how one capitulation led to another.

In the long term, the most lasting legacy of the Congress was just as tragic as the defeat of 1939, at least for those antifascist writers who believed in a democratic Spain. They had observed the workings of a new, ruthless realpolitik in which the legitimate interests of sovereign states could be used as pawns in a wider ideological and geopolitical struggle. They had discovered that Stalinism could be just as voracious as the fascism they feared and loathed. Soon they would come to understand that they had been utterly outmaneuvered in the initial phase of a protracted war of propaganda.

Of the liberals, democrats, socialists, communists, fellow-travelers, idealists, and other antifascists who assembled in Madrid in July 1937, it was arguably those who believed in the "revolution"--that imminent liberation of mankind from the shackles of capitalism, that protean projection of a utopia on earth--who suffered the most. Spain therefore represented a crucial step in their political awakening. Their responses to the downfall of the Republic were as varied as the individuals themselves. Some absolutely abjured their faith in left-wing politics, others continued to believe. Some allowed their disillusionment to lead them to ultra-conservative, even reactionary stances, others maintained the idealism that had brought them to Spain in the first place, but placed their hopes elsewhere.

Of one thing we can be absolutely sure: attendees of the Second Congress rarely discuss the congress at length in their memorial or autobiographical writings. Of the two participants who did give it serious attention--Stephen Spender and Octavio Paz--it is the latter who best articulated the immense sense of betrayal shared by so many in the aftermath of the Republican defeat. Paz, who returned to Valencia in July 1987 to deliver a lecture commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the civil war congress,(49) recalled how the revolutionary spirit had been "perverted," indeed "petrified" by inquisitional Stalinists bent on stifling debate. At the same time, he broadened the parameters of the discussion in order to explain that the true revolutionary tradition, which he traced back to the Enlightenment, was predicated upon criticism, rebellion, and dissent, from which it drew its staying power and its strength. In 1993, Paz wrote that the revolution had in fact been killed by an "absence of criticism."(50)

For most antifascist writers, however, the Congress had not been about revolution: it had provided a venue in which they could proclaim their support for the democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic, their hostility to Franco and his allies, and their opposition to fascism. One of the many tragic consequences of their civil war experience is that their very raison d'etre--intellectual discourse--was utterly undermined, and that truth, reason, and justice frequently were jettisoned in a vicious war of propaganda for which participants were simply unprepared. When one recalls that the vexing problem of the responsibility of the writer in society was to have been featured prominently on the agenda of the Congress in July 1937, the lesson is fraught with bitter irony.

(1) Translated literally, "I discovered that the revolution was the daughter of criticism and that the lack of criticism had killed the revolution" Octavio Paz, "Prologo," Ideas y costumbres, I. Obras completas, IX. Edicion del autor (Mexico City, 1995), 24.

(2) Pro-Franco writers include, e.g., Pio Baroja, Jose Maria Peman, Eugenio d'Ors, phalangist poet Dionisio Ridruejo, Catalan novelist Ignacio Agusti, best-selling novelist Ernesto Gimenez Caballero, Manuel Machado, and poet and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who later publicly recanted his previous Nationalist stance; see Hipolito Escolar Sobrino, La cultura durante la guerra civil (Madrid, 1987), 237-40.

(3) See Manuel Tunon de Lara, La Espana del siglo XX. De la Segunda Republica a la Guerra Civil (19311936) (Barcelona, 1978), 409-14.

(4) See Manuel Aznar Soler, II Congreso internacional de escritores antifascistas (1937), vol. 2, Pensamiento literario y compromiso antifascista de la inteligencia espanola republicana (Barcelona, 1978), 108-37; and David Caute, Communism and the French Intellectuals (1914-1960) (London, 1964), 112-36.

(5) Derek Kahn, Left Review 2 (1936-37): 484.

(6) Stephen Spender, World Within World (London, 1951), 238; see also Malcolm Cowley, "Andre Malraux handled the problem of getting delegates over the border," in "A Congress in Spain: A Report" New Masses, 10 August 1937, 16.

(7) Mikhail Koltsov, Diario de la guerra de Espana, Ediciones Ruedo Iberico (Paris, 1963), 429.

(8) Politica, 2 July 1937, 4; Solidaridad Obrera, 2 July 1937, 3.

(9) See Luis Mario Schneider, II Congreso internacional de escritores antifascistas (1937), vol. 1, Inteligencia y guerra civil espanola (Barcelona, 1978), 53-54.

(10) See, e.g., Huguette Godin: "200 ecrivains antifascistes de 26 pays se sont reunis a Paris," Regards, 22 July 1937, 6-7.

(11) A partial list of participants includes Antonio Machado, Jose Bergamin, Rafael Alberti, Jacinto Benavente, Leon Felipe, Margarita Nelken, and Maria Teresa Leon of Spain. Hispano-America was represented by Cesar Vallejo (Peru); Carlos Pellicer, Jose Mancisidor, and Octavio Paz (Mexico); Pablo Neruda and Vicente Huidobro (Chili); and Alejo Carpentier, Nicolas Guillen, and Juan Marinello (Cuba). The French delegation consisted of Andre Malraux, Julien Benda, Claude Aveline, Leon Moussinac, Andre Chamson, and Tristan Tzara; U.K. delegates were W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Ralph Bates, Edgell Rickword, and Silvia Townsend Warner; and the Soviet contingent consisted of Ilya Ehrenburg, Mikhail Koltsov, and Alexis Tolstoi. Also in attendance were Ambroglio Donini (Italy); Louis Fischer, Malcolm Cowley, and Anna Louise Strong (U.S.); Nordahl Grieg (Norway); Ludwig Renn, Anna Seghers, Egon Erwin Kisch, and Leon Feuchtwanger (Germany); Denis Marion (Belgium); Martin Anderson Nexo (Denmark); and Jef Last (Holland). For the complete list of delegates, see Schneider, Inteligencia y guerra civil espanola, 77-79.

(12) Solidaridad Obrera, 3 July 1937, 6; see also Schneider, Inteligencia y guerra civil espanola, 53-54.

(13) See Andre Chamson, Retour d'Espagne. Rien qu'un temoignage (Paris, Grasset, 1937), 41.

(14) Commune, September 1937, 1.

(15) See Manuel Tunon de Lara and Maria Carmen Garcia-Nieto, "La guerra civil" in Historia de Espana, vol. 9, La crisis del estado: Dictadura, Republica, Guerra (1923-1939), 357-68; and Tunon de Lara, La Espana del siglo XX. La Guerra Civil (1936-1939) (Barcelona, 1978).

(16) Quoted in El Pueblo (Valencia), 6 July 1936, 1-2.

(17) Quoted in Stephen Spender, "Spain Invites the World's Writers. Notes on the International Congress, Summer 1937," in New Writing, no. 4, Autumn (London, 1937), 250.

(18) Ibid.

(19) Ilya Ehrenburg, Eve of War, 1933-1941, trans. Tatiana Shebunina, with Yvonne Kapp (London, 1963), 180.

(20) Spender, World Within World, 241.

(21) Gabriel Jackson, The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-1939 (Princeton, 1965), 394-95.

(22) Left Review, September 1937, 445-46, also reprinted in Schneider, Inteligencia y guerra civil espanola, 302-3; French trans, in Commune, August 1937, 1409-10.

(23) Stephen Koch, Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas Against the West (New York), 1994, 266 and chap. 10, "The Spanish Strategem."

(24) Ibid., 281.

(25) Julian Gorkin, Les Communistes contre la revolution espagnole (Paris, 1978), 87.

(26) Commune, September 1937, 21.

(27) Left Review, September 1937.

(28) See "Liberte pour Victor Serge!," La Revolution proletarienne, 10 July 1935, 227-29.

(29) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1901-1941), trans. Peter Sedgwick (1951; reprint, Oxford, 1980), 317.

(30) "French Writers and the People's Front: Louis Aragon Interviewed" Left Review 1 (1936): 379-80.

(31) Ibid, 380.

(32) Commune, September 1937, 19.

(33) Spender, World Within World, 241.

(34) Andre Gide, Retour de I'URSS (Paris, 1936).

(35) See Cahiers de la petite Dante (1929-1937) [Maria Van Rysselberghe], (Gide's lifelong companion), vol. 2, published as vol. 5 of the Cahiers Andre Gide (Paris, 1974).

(36) Andre Gide, Back from the U.S.S.R (London, 1937), trans. Dorothy Bussy, 71.

(37) Ibid., 62-63, 85.

(38) David Wingeate Pike, Les Francais et la guerre d'Espagne 1936-1939 (Paris, 1975), 243.

(39) Sobrino, La cultura durante la guerra civil, 118.

(40) Andre Gide, Retouches a Mon Retour de I'URSS (Paris, 1937).

(41) Spender, World Within World, 240.

(42) L'Humanite, 17 July 1937, 8.

(43) Commune, August 1937, 1417; The same issue of the AEAR organ contains a lengthy repudiation of Gide's book by Andre Wurmser, "Retouches a son Retour de I'URRS ou propos d'un pharisien" 142-236.

(44) Cahiers de la petite dame, vol. 3, (1937-1945), 32, published as vol. 6 of the Cahiers Andre Gide (Paris, 1975). "[Malraux] a deja marque son attachement a Gide en refusant de parler dans cette seance qui suivit le Congres des Intellectuels en Espagne, et off Aragon et Bergamin avaient attaque Gide."

(45) Gide, Back from the U.S.S.R, 71.

(46) Jorge Semprun, La deuxieme mort de Ramon Mercader (Paris, 1969), 397-99.

(47) Ehrenburg, Eve of War, 1933-1941, 180.

(48) John Lehman, The Whispering Gallery: Autobiography, vol. 1 (London, 1955), 265-66.

(49) "Valencia 1937-1987," Vuelta (Mexico City), July 1987, 15.

(50) Octavio Paz, "Prologo" in Ideas y costumbres, I. Obras completas, vol. 9, Edicion del autor (Mexico City, 1995), 24.

Robert S. Thornberry is a professor of French and Spanish translation at the University of Alberta.

The Second International Congress for the Defense of Culture, held against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, provided a venue for writers to proclaim their support for the democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic. Robert S. Thornberry shows that intellectual discourse was significantly undermined by Stalinist agents who subverted the writers' ability to criticize the war or its participants.
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