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Orwell v. Cockburn, Continued

After he made New York City his base in 1970, Alex Cockburn and I became friends. We were in political sync about many things but not about the Civil War in Spain, where Claud Cockburn had seen combat, been a reporter for the Daily Worker, and an agent of the Comintern. (Alex didn’t follow all Ten Commandments all the time, but he always honored his mother and father.) 

I admired how the POUM/Anarchists went all the way in the areas of Catalonia they controlled (as rhapsodized by Orwell): “General and private, peasant and militiaman, still met as equals; everyone drew the same pay; wore the same clothes; ate the same food and called everyone else ‘thou’ and ‘comrade’; there was no boss-class, no menial class, no beggars, no prostitutes, no lawyers, no priests, no boot-licking, no cap touching. I was breathing the air of equality, and I was simple enough to imagine that it existed all over Spain. I did not realize that more or less by chance I was isolated among the most revolutionary section of the Spanish working class.”

Alex’s line, to the best of my recollection, went like this: 1936 was less than 15 years after the Red Army had defended the Bolshevik regime against an overthrow attempt by White forces led by generals equivalent to Franco (Deniken, Kolchak) and supplied with fresh troops and modern weapons by hostile capitalist governments (Britain, The US, even Czechoslovakia). As Stalin’s generals weighed the defense of the Spanish Republic, their own victory over the Whites in 1921 presented a model. Replicating that model in 1936 meant imposing a highly centralized command structure on a widely fragmented country in which the POUM and Anarchists had the leadership and were pursuing their own strategies in a few regions.

Equal pay for officers and privates is an appealing ideal, Alex acknowledged, but get real: the Republican Army was desperate to retain officers and senior cadres. More than two-thirds had gone over to Franco at the start and paying them like privates would risk driving them all away. The same applies throughout government and industry: equal pay may be the ideal, but if you suddenly disregard workers’ seniority and alienate the managers and technicians whose expertise you need, you won’t prevail in the civil war. Therefore, defend the parliamentary Republic now, push for Communism later.

The Communists tried desperately to get France to sell weapons and allow shipments to Spain. The French Prime Minister, Leon Blum was a Socialist constrained by a right-wing Parliament and military. In I, Claud, Cockburn describes with verve how he fabricated an event to influence Blum on behalf of the Republic.

Otto Katz, the Comintern operative who ran the Republican government’s news agency, asked Cockburn to write “a tip-top, smashing, eye-witness account of the great anti-Franco revolt which occurred yesterday at Tetuan, the news of it having been hitherto suppressed by censorship.” 

No such revolt had occurred, but, as Cockburn explains “Occasionally, despite non-intervention, the government of Leon Blum, under pressure from the Left, agreed that all concerned should shut both eyes tight while military supplies were rushed across the Catalan frontier. At this moment a major battle was being mounted in Spain. On the frontier a big consignment of field guns was ready. The outcome of the battle might depend on its getting through. Next morning a strong deputation of Communist deputies and others was to call on Blum, asking for a little shut-eye… Blum, naturally, was always more malleable when anything happened to suggest that Franco might, after all, lose the war.”

Consulting maps in guidebooks, Cockburn and Katz concocted a scenario in which “sections of the Moorish soldiery, sickened by losses in Spain, had joined with civilian victims of colonial oppression and Spanish anti-Fascists in united, if desperate, action… In the end it emerged as one of the most factual, inspiring and yet sober pieces of war reporting I ever saw, and the night editors loved it. When the deputations saw Blum in the morning, he had been reading it in newspaper after newspaper, and appreciating its significance. He was receptive to the deputation’s suggestions. The guns got through all right, and the Republicans won that battle.”

It was a gay caper, but too little, too late. If the Comintern actually had promoted dissent among the Moorish soldiers and an actual anti-Franco revolt had ensued at Tetuan, it might have affected the course of the Civil War. But by 1937 the Comintern’s original mission of fighting imperialism had been abandoned in favor of appeasing the French, whose leaders would have feared that an uprising in Spanish Morocco might give ideas to their subjects in French Morocco.

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