Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Abraham Lincoln Brigade Memorial Vandalized

A memorial to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in San Francisco has been vandalized by anarchist activists. The vandals wrote:
“A public art work celebrating the role played by the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, the US dupes of and cannon fodder for the Stalinist counter-revolution in Spain from 1936 to 1939, was dedicated this past May on San Francisco's Embarcadero, behind the fountain on Justin Herman Plaza at the foot of Market Street. Sometime this past week, some person or persons unknown gave this monument to the one of the big lies of 20th century history an appropriate makeover. The Stalinist art work was grafittied with the message, "Viva Durruti Y Orwell," in what appears to be red and black spray paint.”

This is surely going to make for some interesting fights amongst the various leftist communities in the Bay Area. You have those who deem the Brigade a true expression of international solidarity in the face of totalitarianism, and others who see them as an extension of the Soviet Union that would betray the anarchists in Spain.

I don’t support vandalism, and this case is no exception. I do however think that the ALB has been lionized by some on the left without considering exactly what they fought for and why, and it looks like these “activists” may very well get an exchange on that subject. But who am I kidding! We will have a week long shouting match between the two sides, and then return to the state they have been for the last 100 years.


TNC said...

I posted a comment under the name "TNC" without a URL. Probably why it was not deleted:

First, let get things straight. The ALB were not “premature anti-fascists.” This is a myth concocted by members of the ALB:


They were actually de-facto “pro-fascists” while Stalin and Hitler had their non-alignment pact. Stalin was not anti-fascist until after Nazi forces invaded the USSR. Prior to that moment the greatest enemy (according to the Stalinists) was liberalism and social democracy or “social fascism” in COMINTERN speak.

Second, it’s a shame Bay Area anarchists engage in these sorts of meaningless symbolic actions while, at the same time, failing to confront the Stalinists in the streets. Where are the Carlo Trescas of today?

Third, why is vandalism so readily dismissed as “COINTELPRO” activity. It might be juvenile but many militants are juvenile.

“I would have fought, just like the Abraham Lincoln Brigades fought. So would 99% of the people who read Indybay.”

Yes, but there were more brigades than the ALB or other “International Brigades” controlled by the USSR. Most anarchists/libertarian socialists did not serve with the Stalinist International Brigades. For example the POUM and CNT-FAI had their own militias.

All of this information is well documented in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA) at NYU. One incredibly valuable resource is the microfilmed records of the International Brigades that were taken to the Soviet Union after the Spanish Civil War. These records list eye/hair color, etc. as well as political affiliation, was the volunteer a communist, a "good party member," etc.

The ALB were volunteers for socialist totalitarianism.

Roland Dodds said...

TNC, well said. We both agree that acts of vandalism can easily be done by the most dedicated partisan. Just because it’s stupid, doesn’t mean its COINTELPRO.

You also shed some needed light on the ALB. Like many on the left, I had romanticized the group in the past, and once I dealt with the reality of who they were and what they were supporting, I simply didn’t have the same enthusiasm for the myth. William Herrick’s “Jumping the Line” is one of my favorite autobiographies out there, and he was a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. Within his book, he documents the bizarre mindset and loyalties of those in the republican cause. Worth a read if you haven’t picked it up already; oddly enough, I picked it up at the first AK Press event I attended in Oakland sometime in the late 90s.

TNC said...

More on ALB here:

"Guide to the Records of the International Brigades (Comintern Archives, Fond 545) at the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Recent History (RGASPI), Moscow"

The COINTELPRO meme is so Indymedia. They were calling me an agent back in 2001 when my politics were much further to the left than today. Now they just delete my comments.

AK Press? Haven't heard that name since my radical days. I used to know some of the people working there back when they first started their bay area operation. They were in SF before Oakland. Glad to hear they reprinted Herrick’s text.

They are a strange outfit though. On the one hand, they publish some excellent anti-authoritarian texts (including Paul Avrich's work) but they also do a lot of events with Alexander Cockburn who, as you know, is an apologist for the totalitarian left.

jams o donnell said...

I can't speak for the US IB volunteers but the 200 or so Irish volunteers were not by any stretch of teh imagination stalinist dupes. They had a whole variety of reasons for fighting (the Irish Communist Party was miniscule anyway). Similarly not all of teh 700 plus vulunteers who fought on the fascist side (XV Bandera Irlandesa) were fascist lackeys.

Retief said...

So per TNC the people fighting against Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini, were the "pro-fascists"? That's some logic there dude. You could give Jonah Goldberg lessons.

Roland Dodds said...

Jams and Retief,

I don’t think TNC is saying all volunteers fighting for the republican cause were pro-fascist, just that members of the ALB (who were fine supporting the Nazi regime when the Soviet line commanded them to do so) certainly were not fighting fascism per-say: rather doing what the Soviet Communist party told them to do.

There were surely countless men and women who fought against totalitarianism during the Spanish Civil War and they should be celebrated, but we shouldn’t white wash over groups like the ALB and other Stalinists who did serious harm to republicanism in Spain, even if they had fought specific battles with left wing partisans against the right.

TNC said...

Yes, Roland is correct. Let me make myself absolutely clear. There were plenty of volunteers in the Spanish Civil War who were not Stalinists including socialists, anarchists, etc. I stated this in my first comment.

But the vast majority of the members of the ALB were members of the CPUSA which was part of the Comintern. Comintern policy prior to the Spanish Civil War (the “Third Period”) viewed liberals and social-democrats as a greater threat to communism than fascism.

When Stalin and the Comintern adopted the Popular Front in 1935, communist policy flipped, emphasizing a common struggle of all liberal and left elements against fascism. This Popular Front period coincided with the Spanish Civil War. But after the Spanish Civil War, Comintern policy changed yet again.

When the Molotov-Ribentrop Pact was signed between Hitler and Stalin in 1939, the CPUSA (and by extension the ALB) dropped their anti-fascist position once again. As Hitler’s forces conquered most of Western and Central Europe, they did nothing to oppose fascism. Look at the “Daily Worker” newspaper from this period. It was only after the Nazis turned against the USSR in June 1941 did the CPUSA and ALB veterans once again become “anti-fascist.”

“From September 1939 to June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the CPUSA dropped its support for an antifascist Popular Front. It denounced President Roosevelt's efforts to aid Britain, France, and other nations at war against Germany and opposed FDR's reelection in 1940. The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, led by Milton Wolff, tacked in parallel with the CPUSA and opposed all assistance to the anti-Nazi belligerents. After the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, all this changed. The CPUSA once again donned the cloak of antifascism, and the VALB called for American intervention in the war.” (see John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, “The Myth of Premature Anti-Fascism,” New Criterion, Sep 2002)

If that is too conservative of a source for you, here is another (http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/history/A0857500.html)

“The party's attacks on Nazi Germany ended abruptly with the signing of the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact in Aug., 1939, and World War II, which immediately followed, was denounced as an “imperialist” war caused by Great Britain and France. American defense preparations and aid to the Western democracies were vigorously opposed as “war-mongering,” and Communist-dominated unions were quick to go out on strike. However, when Germany attacked Russia in June, 1941, the Communist position on the war changed overnight from “imperialist” to “democratic.” The party, under the leadership of Earl Browder, now went all out in its support of the war. Strikes were opposed as a hindrance to the war effort, and in 1944 the U.S. Communist party “disbanded” as a political party to become the Communist Political Association.”

I realize it shatters the notion of the ALB volunteers being heroic saints but the truth is they, and the rest of the CPUSA, were constantly shifting their political stance according to the interests of the Soviet Union.

Sorry for the long comment, Roland.

Roland Dodds said...

No problem, and well said. Long comments are always welcome.

jams o donnell said...

The CPGB were much the same. Before Barbarossa they viewed the war as a capitalist one, after they were ammong the most loyal supporters of teh war effort... I wonder why

Anonymous said...

The debate (if not the vandalism) about what went down in the Spanish Civil War is fascinating. But as an assiduous user of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives at NYU, I have to say that I'm somewhat flabbergasted by the broadbrushed assertions being made here. Come check out the archive; read just a few of the thousands of letters written by the American volunteers to their friends and loved ones back in the states. The picture is so much more complicated than the "dupes or cannon fodder" alternative being offered here. The volunteers were not saints, but on the whole, they were honorable people or remarkable courage, trying to make a difference at a time when Hitlerism was poised to take over the world. For my money, that's reason enough for a monument right there.

TNC said...

"The volunteers were not saints, but on the whole, they were honorable people or remarkable courage, trying to make a difference at a time when Hitlerism was poised to take over the world."

I've spent a great deal of time at the archives as well. That's why I mentioned it in my comments above. Did you happen to look at this?

"Guide to the Records of the International Brigades (Comintern Archives, Fond 545) at the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Recent History (RGASPI), Moscow"

Did you look at the Soviet microfilm records of the volunteers?

Anon, we can disagree about interpretation but not facts. The CPUSA and the VALB were anti-fascist when it was the Soviet line. But when the Soviets flipped and were friendly with the fascists, so was the CPUSA. If individual members disagreed with this position they should have protested or left the party. They did not. They were more dedicated to the party line than anti-fascism. The myth of "premature anti-fascism" was concocted by the VALB and bears no resemblance to reality.

Anonymous said...

I've seen the moscow microfilm; some of it, it's quite vast, but it's still just a small part of a much bigger picture. Have you read the letters anthologized in the book edited by Cary Nelson, "Madrid, 1937"?

Do you have statistics of how many lincoln volunteers left the party because of the hitler/stalin pact? I know that adherence to the pact is a very tough thing to jibe with unconditional antifascism: tough, but not impossible. There's material in the archive that give some insight into this. If you went to Spain and saw the western democracies pretty much flush the Republic down the toilet, your view of things can become pretty cynical.

The "pre-mature antifascist" thing is also more complicated than you suggest. There have been pretty strong responses to the klehr/haynes article you link to.

Anonymous said...

I tried to post a response earlier today, but I think it might have bounced back. Here goes again. I appreciate the collegial tone of your response.

I have looked at the Moscow microfilm at Tamiment –some of it; it’s a pretty vast collection, but still just a small piece of the documentation available at the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.

It is certain difficult to try to square unconditional antifascism with adherence to the Hitler-Stalin pact, and I’m sure that, as you suggest, in some cases –perhaps many or most cases—dedication to the party line was stronger than anti-fascism. [Though I think this formulation is probably too much of an oversimplification: in the wake of the defeat in Spain, for many of these folks, the party line must have seemed like the only way to combat fascism, even during the strategic pause of the pact.] When I try to put myself in the shoes of these guys –who risked their lives to put down Hitler and Mussolini and Franco in Spain, and watched as England, France and the US pretty much flushed the Republic down the toilet—I can sort of understand the mindset that would have led them to toe the line. Not excuse or forgive, but understand.

Do you have statistics on how many of the Lincoln vets did leave the party as a result of the pact? I don’t. I do know a couple of Lincoln vets that did. And then there are the almost 1,000 volunteers that died in Spain (probably about a third of the total) who never had the luxury of taking a stance vis-à-vis the pact. What would James Lardner, or Hy Greenfield or Don Henry have thought about the pact? We’ll never know. And then there’s the important and honorable service of pretty much all able-bodied vets in WW II... Were they just trying to save the Soviet Union there too?

Several of the claims of the Haynes/Klehr article you link have been strongly refuted.


bob said...

I have some sympathy with anon's position. My grandparents were CPUSA members. My grandmother was a nurse, and wanted to volunteer to go to Spain. My grandfather ultimately did not want to fight in a war, and they did not go. Many of their friends went; many did not return. Partly because they always felt they should have gone, they continued to idolise the ALB until their deaths.

They left the Party, I am pretty sure, when the Non-Aggression Pact was signed. Like many Jewish CP members, for whom the Party's absolute "anti-fascism" was its core feature, they just couldn't stomach it. As Anon says, I am sure some actual vets of the ALB likewise left at this point.

Just to finish they story, although they didn't join again, they moved close to the Party after 1941, and swallowed the strategic pause bullshit, and basically became strong Browderites, moving away from the Party again when Moscow purged it of Browderism.

Over the years, they came to accept that there were bad things about Stalin's Russia, but they absolutely refused to accept that there was anything flawed about the CP/Popular Front/Republican cause in Spain. Orwell's name remained a swearword in their home - and that is why it is cool that the words "Viva Orwell" were part of the graffiti!

Thinking about my grandparents, who were dupes and cannonfodder of an evil system, but nonetheless noble people, I find the idea of vandalising the memorial very offensive: there are more productive ways to fight that battle.


The Cointelpro allegation - that is, as TNC says, so Indymedia. But it is noteworthy that Chuck Munson and Lawrence Jorach, key Indymedia people, are having none of that bullshit.


On Cockburn, POUM, Orwell and Durruti, by the way, see my post here.


Thanks TNC, for all these great references by the way! The Klehr piece is available free and in its entirety at Frontpage:


TNC said...

The microfilm is an incredibly important piece of evidence as it confirms the level of control and surveillance the Coimintern had over the IBs. Personal letters, interviews, etc. are all interesting but need to be placed in this broader political context.

For example, I'm aware IB members wrote some letters to personal friends expressing their doubt about this or that Soviet policy. But, at the end of the day, the vast majority were shills for Stalin. Same when they returned from the war.

"And then there’s the important and honorable service of pretty much all able-bodied vets in WW II... Were they just trying to save the Soviet Union there too?"

What was the reaction of the CPUSA when Pearl Harbor was attacked? When did CPUSA policy change? After the USA was attacked or after the USSR was attacked?

The answers to those questions show you where their loyalty was. It was not to this country. It was to a foreign government.

"Do you have statistics of how many lincoln volunteers left the party because of the hitler/stalin pact?"

No, not handy. But it would be an interesting study if the volunteers left the party in any numbers. I suspect not many left the party given the position of the VALB. They clung pretty hard to the party line for decades. Even today the vets and their sympathizers think Stalin was an ok guy, certainly compared to the "fascist dictator" who occupies our white house today.

The IBs were volunteers for international Stalinism. Antifascism was merely an afterthought and abandoned as needed.

Anonymous said...

OK, I don't think we're going to convince each other of anything, but a cordial exchange of points of view can only be helpful, and I enjoy the back-and-forth when it is collegial. Thanks for the dialogue. Let me try to clarify my positions.

1. Calling all of the Lincolns "de facto pro-fascists" because some (many) of them accomodated themselves to the Hitler/Stalin pact is really a stretch, and, in my opinion, as bad as (or worse than) calling Bush and Cheney fascists.

2. I do think that as historians, it is important to try to distinguish between: a) the deeds and intentions of the commintern; b) the deeds and intentions of the leadership of ALB and VALB; c) the deeds and intentions of the rank-and-file of the ALB, because...

3. ...roughly a third of the Lincolns died in Spain. Probably another third disappeared into the woodwork after returning from Spain. So actually, there's an awful lot about "the vast majority" of Lincolns that we don't know and probably never will know. Much of what we do know comes from a relatively small group of the hard-core leaders and "spokespeople." I have serious discrepancies with your characterizations of even this small group, let alone with the generalizations you make about "the vast majority."

4. A multiple choice question: On numerous occasions since 1975, Spain's democratic government has expressed is profound gratitude to the volunteers of the International Brigade, a) for trying to addvance the cause of establishing a soviet-style socialist republic on the Iberian peninsula; b) for coming to the aid of a fledgling democracy under attack from international fascism. Are these grateful Spaniards also dupes and shils?

TNC said...

1. I completely disagree. All I can do at this point is repeat myself. Look at the party's policy and see how party members followed the party line and refused to leave the party due to their supposed anti-fascism.

2. I agree.

3. Good point. Yes, many did slip through the woodwork.

4. As you are aware, Spain is still coming to terms with the civil war. For a long time people refused to talk about it. In the wake of Franco's death and the development of democracy in the country, people on the left slowly became able to tell (and publish) their version of the events.

Eventually the left won elections in regional and national contests. The emergence of the left as a political force in Spain is what has made these reunions and other commemorations of the IBs possible.

As far as being shills for Stalin, unfortunately, far too many communists in Europe remain quite uncritical, to put it mildly.

As to whether these people are dupes, I'll leave that up to readers to decide for themselves.