A veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Abe Osheroff, 85, talks to AVA editor Bruce Anderson about fighting the fascists in Spain, communism, and the rewards of social activism.
How long have you been out on the West Coast, Mr. Osheroff?
I’ve been in Seattle for a little over 10 years — mainly it was an escape from New Hampshire where I was involved with a woman I’m living with now, and we agreed that as soon as our kids reached college age, I would escape. My basic West Coast residence for many years was Los Angeles, but this is a compromise, and it’s OK.
When you got back from Spain. you settled in L.A.?
No, no. I left for Spain from Brooklyn, New York and got back to Brooklyn, New York. I was there on and off mostly until ’56, and I’ll tell you the relevancy of that. When I was a young kid, I now looking back can describe myself as a radical humanist. It was the atmosphere in which I grew up in. And if you’re a radical humanist in the Depression, where could you go?
The Republicans and the Democrats were doing very little at the onset of the Depression to alleviate the suffering of the people. That didn't begin until Roosevelt developed his program — one that people like me were fighting for long before.
There was no such thing as unemployment insurance, no Social Security — nobody in government was really moving on these issues. It appeared to me that the young communists were doing so. So from the age of 16, until ’56 when I was 41, I was a communist.
I’ll sum it all up for you. The thing that brought me into the communist thing was my radical humanism. The thing that compelled me to leave communism was the irresistible conclusion that the movement to which I had given so many years of my life — and this new shiny society over in Europe — were neither radical nor humanist. And therefore I had to get out.
So I didn’t change. I remained a radical humanist, but I got out. So when you ask me where I landed, that’s basically the trajectory. When I got out in ’56, it was an enormous change for me, and I went to L.A. to get away from the inner wrangling and bickering that’s characteristic of the left when they get into trouble. I spent many, many years in L.A., working as a carpenter primarily.
Did you have trouble finding work because of your politics? Alva Bessie (another American communist who fought with the Lincoln Brigade) told me that when he got out of federal prison, the repression was so intense that he occasionally went for a couple days at a time without eating. Every time he would get work, the FBI would show up a couple days later.
Well, the reason was that, other than writing, Bessie had no means of making an existence. I didn’t have that problem. Because I was a construction worker. If I had worked in a factory or worked in government, or worked in academia, it would have been a different story — they would have pounded my ass out. But because I was a construction worker, they could hound me out of one job, and I’d pick up my tools, and the next day I’m around the corner working on another.
In one specific instance, I was up on the second or third story of a wooden building, and I saw two guys that looked like cops talking to my boss down below. My boss was a former carpenter who had become a contractor. They talked to him, gesticulated, and left, and then he came up, and I said to him, “Those were FBI guys,” and he said: “Yeah. They were telling me you were a goddamn Red.”
I said, "And what did you say?” "Well, you know something," he said. "I told them: 'If you got a couple more like that, send them. I could use them.'" Motto of the story: A nail doesn't have any politics. So, I didn’t suffer much.
Alva Bessie took a beating, it’s true, and a number of our other guys took a beating. But I’m always humbled by the simple fact that our comrades who fought alongside of us in Spain, those who were not American or Canadian or British — where were the German and the Italian and Polish anti-fascists going to go when the war was over?
You know where they went? They went into either Hitler’s concentration camps, or some of them went into Stalin’s concentration camps. So when I think of what happened to them, we got off easy. At worst one of us spent a year in jail, we'd lose a few jobs, but nobody lost their life and nobody put in 20 years in a concentration camp or whatever.
So I take the whole question of our persecution with a certain amount of humility. The fact is, whatever you’re going to be, it’s a little easier in the United States. It’s easier to become rich, it’s easier to be poor — it’s easier, it’s true. In every respect and on every level.
When you went to Spain you had no combat or military experience?
The only gun experience I had was I lived in a neighborhood where gangsters occasionally got shot. I had heard a revolver go off.
No, none of us had military experience, and the truth of the matter is that military experience doesn’t make for a good soldier by itself. The thing that makes a soldier is conviction, and if you survive the first few days, you’re a soldier. You are a soldier.
So the big problem was not lack of military experience, the big problem was lack of arms. I mean, we had to count our fucking bullets. Our artillery was pathetic. We used to say, “Don’t fire, you’ll wake the enemy up.” Two shots, and that was it. Our Air Force, well.... At some moments, we had air superiority when the Russians succeeded in getting 100 or so fighter planes over. But they quickly ran out of parts and gas, and we were defenseless against German and Italian aviation.
The big reason we lost the war is the lack of equipment, and the truth of the matter is, I think — a lot of comrades won’t agree with me — that no matter what happened, even if the United States had lifted the embargo and sold some arms to Spain, I think that the war was lost, period. Because Hitler and Mussolini had committed themselves fully, not partially. Fully. And there’s no way in the world that we could have overcome that. Because if we grew a little stronger, they would have committed more force.
So when you arrived, they kept all the Americans together?
Well, we arrived in dribs and drabs you know. The brigades were organized into language groups, because language was a big problem. People came from 20 different countries.
So you have a group that spoke English. That was the Americans, the Canadians, the British, the Irish, the Scotch. You had a group that spoke French, that included all the Frenchmen and the Belgians. You had a German anti-fascist group, which included Germans and Austrians and some Swiss. You had Slavic — and that was a big mix-up which included particularly Polish but also Hungarian, Czechoslovakians, and so forth.
So, in fact, there were five such brigades and all the English-speaking ones were grouped into one, the 15th Brigade, which loosely began to be called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Were you given any training when you got there?
Well, yes. We were given either sticks of wood or empty rifles. Actually in terms of firing a gun, the first time almost any of us ever fired a gun was just before we reached a front. We were given three, four, five extra rounds to fire into a hillside to know what the hell it was about.
What kind of rifles did you have?
A collection of rifles, including some very old Russian rifles, some Mexican rifles and some British and Spanish rifles. A mixture of heterogeneous crap.
You didn’t have anything like mortars?
No, we had a few mortars, not much, and we had a few World War I machine guns. Water-cooled machine guns. They were effective if you had enough ammunition. But we were pathetic when it came to tanks, aviation, and so forth, and it was not a trench war, it was a mobile war. It was in transition from World War I to World War II, and the fact is they had not only the numerical superiority, but they had all the oil and gas and ammunition they needed. They got all the oil and gas from Texaco on credit. That’s not too well-known — I tell that story in my first film, "Dreams And Nightmares."
Did they at least try to place an experienced military person as your company commander?
We had a couple of people that had served in the National Guard, and we had a couple of Boy Scout leaders. Frankly, that didn’t make for leadership. Leadership came out of people who had quick minds, who had a lot of guts and rose out of the ranks — people who didn’t lose their cool in combat, and so forth. But we had an awful lot of commanders, you know. I think the Lincoln Brigade went through 17 commanders. They all got wounded.
How long were you in Spain?
I had a short career. I arrived in May of 1937, and was pretty severely wounded late that year. I did some teaching back at the base, and went back to the States in August of the next year, which means approximately 15 months. Some guys had a much shorter career, they got killed right out, and others, unfortunately, lasted all through the war.
My entry into Spain was a bit dramatic. The French had closed the border, so I went by boat from from Marseilles to Barcelona, but we never got there. The boat was torpedoed 60 miles out of Barcelona by an Italian submarine. When we got hit, the boat went down pretty fast, so some of the life boats made it down, but most of them didn’t. A lot of guys hit the water.
But fortunately, they torpedoed us right opposite of a fishing village, and once the fishermen realized the sub was not going to come up and machine-gun us, they very quickly came out and did a lot of the salvage rescue. We had 250 guys on board, and 80 guys drowned — so the loss was minimized by the rapid actions of the fishermen.
Were those fishermen politically sympathetic?
They were Catalans. They were very much at war with the fascists, against the fascists. Otherwise they would have done nothing — they would have let us stay out there. That was our "moment of truth," when we realized that we’re probably not going to win this one.
But my philosophy of activism is that you don’t do things with the reasonable supposition that what you do will result in victory. You do things because they’re the right thing to do. And you know what? Most of the right things to do seldom work out when you look at history.
So from long ago, I never needed to know that whatever I was fighting for would be successful. No. Very far from that. I reached a point where it became a question of acting on the basis of the best that’s in me, the best of my morality, my own ethics, my own idealism. And in a way, it’s a form of enlightened selfishness.
See, I don’t think social activists should make sacrifices. If you make sacrifices, you’re going to burn out. You have to love what you’re doing, and you have to be rewarded in terms other than money or power. I’m pushing 86, and I’m a very rich guy, yes. I’m richer than Bill Gates. He’s a nerd. He looks in the mirror. He knows that when people kiss or hug him, he has to wonder why. I don’t have that problem. I got something he hasn’t got!
You probably know Harry Fisher. Did you know him when you were in Spain?
No, only afterward. He wrote this book "Comrades: Tales of a Brigadista in the Spanish Civil War"
Yes, that’s a very good book. In "Comrades: Tales of a Brigadista in the Spanish Civil War," Harry describes an episode where a young fascist is captured ... a young guy, not in a command position. And the kid is shouting a lot of fascist slogans, and he’s seriously irritating everyone. So there’s a long argument about whether or not to kill this guy, to execute him. One side argues: kill him, he’s a fascist, he’ll never change. The other side argues: don't kill him, he’s young, he’s stupid, he’s not in a command position. The people for execution prevailed, and this guy was shot....
They always do, they always do.
It seemed to me — and the reason I think Harry cited this incident — was that it was sort of pivotal. That maybe if this kid hadn’t been executed, metaphorically it would have been a better thing.
Well, as long as you raise the question of executions, one of the things that’s nice about Harry’s book is that he’s one of our first guys to publicly express a couple of things that a lot of guys didn’t want to talk about.
One: did we have desertions? Yes. They were not numerous, but we did. What was done to the deserters? The general policy throughout most of the war was that when deserters were caught, they were brought back and given a chance again, or they were put in labor battalions. They were not shot.
But at one point in the war a son-of-a-bitch in charge of the International Brigades, Andre Marti, who was more of a fascist than a democrat, issued an order that deserters were to be shot. And because that order was issued, you had to listen to commands. There was one outstanding case of a guy who was executed for desertion. Then that policy was changed again, and deserters were not shot.
What Harry also does that I find fascinating is that when he talks about desertion, he talks about it in very personal terms. He says: "I came close to doing that myself. I was overwhelmed by fear." And anybody who ever served in the infantry in combat will not argue against that. Anybody who does is lying, or he’s a psychopath.
The body does not want to go; that’s a fact! And if you happen to pop into a shell hole, it takes an enormous amount of concentration to get out if it’s a safe place. And Harry reveals that. He said he was scared shitless, he was ready to pack it in.
It’s an enormous, to me, honest expression of a guy in combat. And that’s true in combat, whatever army you’re in. The only exception to that are some people who are psychopaths — on both sides, by the way — and they just fight for the fuck of it. There are people who like to kill. We had a few. We had one such guy who died two years ago, and usually we have these obituaries in our little magazine called "The Volunteer." You’ve seen it, yes? He never had an obituary, because nobody wanted to write it.
He was considered a psycho?
Well, we hated him with a passion. I wouldn't have written a fucking thing for him, but we still have guys who believe you shouldn’t wash your dirty laundry in public and all that kind of bullshit. I believe it makes us more credible to tell the truth. We’re human beings, we’re not perfect. Let me put it another way: We have this film called "The Good Fight." You may have heard of it. I’m in the thing. I helped to make it.
I’ve seen it.
The thing about "The Good Fight" that would have made it a much better film would be to find some of the characters saying: "Yes, it was a good fight, but it was not a perfect fight. We fought the good fight, but we fucked up occasionally, and we acted in a dehumanized fashion, etc." I think that would have made us even more credible. It’s absolutely true.
Were there a lot of political arguments in your units?
No. I think the arguments were not about ideology, they were arguments about the quality of leadership. The Lincoln Brigade was pretty uniform ideologically. There were differences, but they weren’t so much ideological. After the war, as the years went by, profound ideological differences developed among us.
There were guys who remained pro-Soviet until yesterday. There were others who broke away. There were guys who said that George Orwell was a bloody prick who betrayed the Spanish Revolution. There were others who didn’t go for that, like myself. I don’t go for that. And there were those that said Ernest Hemingway was a prick, because in his novel he said some bad things about some of the left-wing leaders in the war.
Alva Bessie hated Hemingway.
Well, Bessie is fucked-up on that one, because the things Hemingway had to say about those guys happened to be true! Yes, Bessie hated him with a passion. As a matter of fact, Bessie edited an anthology of writings on the Spanish Civil War and not only omitted Hemingway, but in his introduction went into a vitriolic explanation of why he was this guy who betrayed.
And it’s bullshit, because whatever Hemingway’s failings — and he had them — he was an incredibly loyal supporter of the Republic. What Bessie couldn’t stand about Hemingway, and what many of us then (and I’ve changed a lot since then) couldn’t stand about Hemingway, was that he was a democrat with a small “d.” Let me put it another way. You’ve heard the expression “premature anti-fascist” used about us?
Well Hemingway and Orwell and others were hated because they were premature anti-Stalinists. It took some of us many years to come to the same conclusion that Orwell draws. It took me many years, I’m telling you. Now when I read him, I love the stuff, I admire him, he’s a good writer, he’s telling the truth as he sees it. So, yes, we became very differentiated politically.
Did you have any experience with anarchists before you went to Spain?
Well, I knew the history of IWW [the International Workers of the World], and I occasionally ran into an old Wobbly. I admired them. I thought their cause was hopeless, but I admired them. I saw them as idealistic people. I didn’t think the way they went about it — one big union — would ever work in this country. And I still don’t think so.
There’s been a bit of resurgence now of anarchist ideas among young people who are frustrated. I come into contact with quite a few of those on campuses and various places I speak. And I speak a lot — I’ve been out to 250 different universities.
Do you find that young people are fairly knowledgeable?
No, they are not knowledgeable. Almost universally. They and many of their professors are not. If you talk about the Spanish Civil War to young people or to anybody today, and you pose it simply in political terms and the military battles, you’ve lost them. Because after all, as important as it was, it was a little event, which was followed by World War II and the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb, and so forth. Why bother to study it at all?
And the answer to that is not in the politics and not in the military campaigns, but in another question, which is: What made pacifists go to fight? When do pacifists go to fight, if at all? How do you live a life in which you do not suppress your idealism, but you let it activate you in your day-to-day living? The importance of social commitment.
The point being that if you look at young people, you’ve got to start with the assumption that to some degree there is still some idealism left in them, untapped perhaps. And there is certainly anti-authoritarianism in them, and you direct your dialogue to that, in current terms. What is fucked-up about the world in which we’re living? Do you want to be a part of history, or do you want to be an observer of history? Do you want to be fashioned by the world in which you live, or do you want to have some role in fashioning it? This, young people will listen to.
Down in the SF Bay Area, as you know, there are lots of people who describe themselves as "progressives," but who over the last 10 years or so, have been very strongly influenced by mysticism and New Age ideas. It seems to me a reactionary sort of impulse, and it always seems to get in the way. It takes people’s eye off the ball — the economics of situations. So you always get these people making long speeches about the necessity of loving one another and the bad guys are human beings, too, and blah, blah, blah. Before you know it, people are drifting off and becoming demoralized.
People start out with certain illusions. They mean well. And one after another, the illusions are crushed. One after another they begin to see the probability that their dreams are not going to come true, and therefore it’s human to invent a new type of dream, a new type of illusion, which is unassailable.
See, mysticism, you can’t argue it away. It will not be defeated — it’s a cloud, you know. You poke it, it gives a bit and continues on, and it offers a marvelous consolation. It does. It’s a form of religion. It tells you that it all will be O.K. We’re all going to love each other, and we have souls, and when we croak, we’ll all meet again under much better conditions.
You know something? Sometimes I’m jealous. How lovely to believe that shit! Actually, it comes out of despair. It comes out of despair, it comes out of giving up, it comes out of there’s no other way. I have to empathize. I don’t like it, but the fact is, it is hard to find another way and to stick with it. What people give up is they don’t experience that activity as rewarding. They look upon it as energy spent without compensation. The fact is that good work has its own compensation, it really does.
Are there any radicals up there at the university?
Well, there’s a few in every university. You’d be surprised. I’ve been to Stanford three times, with an audience of 300 kids. You know what kind of kids these are. You go through the parking lot, it’s all Bugattis and Cariottis — there isn’t a fucking American car in the lot! And then, of course, they park ‘em and ride around on bicycles. And the bicycles cost more than your car!
But when I've got these kids sitting in front of me, I tell them the truth. I say: "Look, you have some prejudices about radicals, and I’m a radical. I've got some prejudices about you guys, and I want to share them, and maybe get it out of the way so we can dialogue."
I say: "I think most of you — not all of you — are spoiled brats. Most of you got your heads full of shit! You’re going to a university here, that’s bullshit. This is not a university, this is a mind factory where rich parents send their precious little product to be honed and polished and filled and wrapped with a ribbon, and on the ribbon there’s a thing that says “B.S.” I don’t know what that means to you, but in my neighborhood, B.S. also meant bullshit."
Well, I really have their attention at this point. The important thing is I haven’t said "all of you," I’ve said "many of you" or "lots of you," which leaves them room to look at the other guy, you know. This appeals to whatever there is in them. And there is — even in these rich kids — there is a yearning for something better ... when they’re young.
Does that offend them usually?
This is no shit, I got a standing ovation. And later they presented me with a plaque — I’m looking at it right now, and I’ll read it to you. On the front it says: "for Abe Osheroff, Soldier, Scholar and Activist; Veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; with deep appreciation and admiration for your lifelong commitment to the cause of humanity." Isn’t that something?
I know that most of these kids will "recover" and go on to business school and become rich, I know that. I also know, because I keep in touch, that a handful have been really turned around, that kids who might have wound up as corporate lawyers are doing pro bono law work. I know that some of these kids will later become judges. The difference might mean that when a kid comes up who is of color — brown or black — instead of giving him a heavier rap, maybe this judge will try to figure out why the kid's there. It can make a difference. Shit, it makes a difference whether you get three years or 12 years for a particular offense.
I know that about some of these kids, and frankly I tell them that right then and there. I say: "Those of you who are going to be lawyers, those of you who are going to be judges and so forth, don’t let the best part of you be killed in the pursuit of power and money. The best part of you that you have right now, keep it, preserve it. The idealism I’m talking about. That’s your core, never yield that." It touches them, because it’s straight to the heart.
They probably never hear that, or very seldom.
They never heard some of the shit I throw at them. I insult their school. I tell ‘em you’ve got a couple of professors who are great, and if you run into one, treat him like an heirloom, like a jewel, because most of your professors are full of shit! And they love that! Because they know it’s true, and it is true.
So, what about the future?
One thing that's frightening to me is what technology is doing to human relations. Take the question of e-mail. People glory in it: Oh, how quickly I get to my friend, and he gets back to me! We are doing away with face-to-face contact. We’re doing away with the joy of picking up your mail and seeing two or three envelopes written by fucking hand!
How do you convey important emotions through a fucking computer? People talk about love and all that shit, and then go jerk off! I’m fearful of the human cost of the technology thing. It’s totally out-of-hand. I walk into a men's room at the airport, and there’s a guy who's got his dick in one hand and a cell phone in the other, and I think he’s talking lovingly to some woman. It’s tragic! You go into an airport today, and four out of five people, no matter what else they're doing, are talking on cell phones.
We will never have any movement of any real consequence in America until the middle class hurts, that’s a fact. It is very difficult to bring comfortable people, content people — whatever that’s based on — into a life of struggle.
But it is going to happen. The fact is, the world is getting fucked-up environmentally, and it may already be too late. I’m serious. We may slow it down somewhat, but that’ll take a big effort. I personally think that it’s fucked.
There was an article in the paper about Kilamanjaro, the big mountain in Africa, that is losing its glaciers at a rate of — well, they say they'll be entirely gone by 2015. This is happening in other places as well. If those of us who are young now are still around by then, there will be plenty of work to do. Because the people are going to hurt — they're going to hurt.