John Cornford (and Brian Pearce, and Leon Trotsky, and Trotsky’s Mercedes)

From Histomatist:

Browsing George Galloway’s site this morning, as one does, the following news announcement caught my eye:

George Galloway will be with host Matthew Parris on Great Lives – a weekly biographical series where each guest talks about a person in public life who is very special to them. George has chosen the poet John Cornford who was killed, tragically young, in the Spanish Civil War. He would like you to join him for 30 minutes to discover why he finds John’s life so inspirational.
Broadcasting on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday the 18th of August at 4:30pm, then repeated on Friday the 21st at 11pm.
And also available on BBC iPlayer from 19th August.

The Communist poet John Cornford did indeed have a ‘great’ if tragically short, life – and the sacrifice of those like Cornford who gave their lives fighting fascism remains an utterly relevant inspiration for our anti-fascist struggle today. Cornford is clearly a hero for Galloway – see this characteristically short eloquent 2006 article – John Cornford and the Fight for the Spanish Republic – and his choice of a ‘Great Life’ and its timing – has to be applauded. However, one suspects that simply heralding Cornford as a ‘fighter for the Spanish Republic’ may actually miss not only some of the complexity of his politics but also downplay somewhat their revolutionary nature.

As the late great revolutionary historian Brian Pearce once noted, ‘Cornford was killed in action in December 1936, fighting with the International Brigade in Spain. His writings while in Spain suggest that, had he lived, his Marxist approach would have brought him into conflict with Stalinism.’ Pearce referred to John Cornford: A Memoir, edited by Pat Sloan (1938), which ‘consists of selections from the writings of the young man to whom the socialist movement in the universities in that period owed more than to anybody else, together with contributions by people who knew him.’ As Pearce noted,

For Cornford the struggle in Spain was ‘a revolutionary war’. ‘In Catalonia at least the overwhelming majority of the big employers went over to the fascists. Thus the question of socialism was placed on the order of the day.’ The Spanish Communist Party should ‘force recognition from the government of the social gains of the revolution’. Cornford feared that the party was ‘a little too mechanical in its application of People’s Front tactics. It is still concentrating too much on trying to neutralize the petty bourgeoisie – when by far the most urgent task is to win the anarchist workers…’

Though he had no time for anarchism, Cornford saw that the main body of militant workers in the principal industrial region of Spain, around Barcelona, were anarchists, and, being a sincere communist, that meant for him that the party’s task was first and foremost to get among those workers, establish close ties with them, and win them for Marxism. The line actually taken by the Stalinists was first to stick a label on the anarchist workers (‘uncontrollables’, the 1937 equivalent of ‘Left adventurists’), then to work up a pogrom spirit against them among the followers of the Communist Party, and finally to attack and decimate them, using an armed force recruited among former policemen and the middle class.

I do hope George Galloway’s discussion of Cornford will find time to condemn the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism in revolutionary Spain, though something tells me I shouldn’t get my hopes up too much on this score.

Speaking of Pearce, those with access to a university library might check out the latest issue of Revolutionary Russia (v. 22, no. 1 (June 2009) which carries a long obituary alongside two tributes from academic historians, and those without might check out the latest issue of Revolutionary History which also has an obituary.

I am indebted to POUMista for drawing my attention to this photo of George Orwell – another witness to the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism in Spain of course – which as POUMista notes ‘highlights the fact that Orwell, although thought of by some as a Little Englander, was fundamentally an internationalist and cosmopolitan, and in many senses a postcolonial figure.’

Finally, POUMista also drew my attention to Reading the Maps on the late Leszek Kolakowski whose passing seems to have caused no end of debate and turmoil on the blogosphere.

For a similar, slightly harsher, take on Galloway on Corford, see this old post by Bob. Bob does not like George Galloway. (For non-Scots mystified by the Brigada‘s intervention: sleekit, sook.) On Kolakowski, I think I missed Peter Ryley’s excellent “cool reflection”.

Also from Histomatist:

Sorry, a bit irrelevant I know, but I was digging through some old files and, well, speaking of Trotsky, I came across this snippet on page 28 of With Trotsky in Exile by Jean Van Heijenoort which I thought ought to be shared with Histomat readers. It’s about when Trotsky tried to learn to drive at some point during the 1920s.

Trotsky, when still in Russia, had expressed the desire to have a car and to drive. Joffe, a Soviet diplomat and friend of Trotsky, sent him from abroad a Mercedes, specially equipped with a powerful engine. Trotsky took the wheel and, after five hundred yards, went into a ditch. That was the end of the driving.

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All The Right Enemies

From Slack Bastard:

The death of Grods has brought new life to the blogosphere, and A Fresh Start in August. I’d tell Bron to cheer up but the definition of a pessimist is someone who hasn’t yet heard the bad news. Instead, I’ll simply refer to the title of Dorothy Gallagher’s biography of Carlo Tresca: All the Right Enemies.

Often described as a “freelance revolutionary,” Carlo Tresca (1879-1943) was one of the most compelling and colorful figures of the American left prior to World War II. A newspaper editor, labor organizer, civil libertarian, anarchist, anti-Fascist and anti-Stalinist, Tresca had absorbed his fiery socialist principles and had been active as a trade-unionist and editor in his native Abruzzi before immigrating to the United States in 1904.

After joining the International Workers of the World (IWW) in 1912, Tresca was involved in a number of strikes, including the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike (1912), the New York City hotel workers’ strike (1913), the Paterson silk strike (1913), and the Mesabi Range, Minnesota, miners’ strike (1916). He edited a newspaper called L’Avvenire (The Future), first in Pennsylvania and, from 1913, in New York City. Its successor, from 1917, was Il Martello (The Hammer). Tresca’s uncompromising anarcho-syndicalist views resulted in frequent clashes with local and federal authorities, and repeated confiscation of his publications.

He devoted considerable energy to campaigning on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s and also became preoccupied with the struggle against fascism. Pursued by the U. S. government at the behest of the Mussolini regime, he survived several assassination attempts by fascist supporters. The Spanish Civil War intensified his anti-Communist activity and propaganda, earning him more enemies on the American left.

On the evening of January 11, 1943, Tresca was shot to death on the sidewalk in front of his office at Fifth Avenue and 15th Street. Over the years there has been a lively debate about which of Tresca’s many enemies might have been behind the murder. His murder was never prosecuted.

In the same post, Slack Bastard notes:

Poumista, as ever, offers a truly superb neat-o experience dining on radical history… although Poumista’s blogroll suffers from one, rather obvious, lapse.

I’ll correct that ommission when I finish this post.

Also in the same post, this link:

ZAPAGRINGO is a blog by RJ Maccani, who sounds like a righteous d00d. His (?) blog documents the continuing relevance and global effects of the Zapatista uprising of 1994, a revolt by some of the poorest, most oppressed sectors of Mexican society, whose struggles continue and whose determination continues to inspire creative resistance everywhere.

Finally, a great Billy Bragg and Wilco YouTube: Woody Guthrie’s ‘Aginst Th’ Law’ from Mermaid Avenue Volume II.

Talking of Woody, here’s a snippet from a communist blog:

I am a communist. According to a number of talking heads and a handful of vocal rightist mobs, I should be ecstatic. After all, they say a bona fide socialist is sitting in the White House at this very moment! But skewed politics and fear mongering aside, the reality is that Obama is as far from socialism as I am from George Bush.

Socialism is born out of proletarian revolution, in which the working masses rise up and take control of the tools and technology they use for making and distributing the things people want and need. In the process of democratizing production and reorganizing it to meet human need, the working class does away with the very basis for the existence of classes. This opens the door to the establishment of communism, a worldwide, classless society in which all affairs are administered in common. This is what was advocated as historic necessity by people like Albert Einstein, Woody Guthrie, Jack London, Harry Belafonte, Stephen Jay Gould and Karl Marx.

Read the rest. It’s relevant to this.

Sorry, I said finally, but this Slackster post on ex-Sojourner Truth Organization cadre Leonard Zeskin is kind of relevant to our topic.

Radical history web 2.0

[From the archive of struggle, no.17]

Via Tendance Coatesy, we find a blog for the Country Standard, the Communist Party of Great Britain’s rural paper. A bit Stalinist, of course, for my liking, but some fascinating historical stuff. In particular, quite a bit about the early history of the Indendent Labour Party in rural areas, especially in the Northwest, and of the Clarion movement.

Across the Atlantic, The Sojourner Truth Organization: Notes Toward a History is a wonderful project. Of particular interest among recent(ish) stuff is Don Hamerquist in the 1970s articulating a careful anti-Stalinist Leninism in polemics against a then-nameless grouping from Boston, which eventually became the core of the Proletarian Unity League, which in turn was one of the founding elements of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization in the mid-1980s.

The STO, incidentally, have been discussed in the Big Flame blog I already linked to. The use of blogging for grassroots history projects, as in these three examples is one of the great features of Web 2.0, of what Bob calls “citizen scholarship“.