In the mountains north of Madrid, the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan, is talking about America with a group of anti-fascist fighters of the Spanish Civil War.
“Do you have no big proprietors?” Andrés asked.
“Many.” [Jordan answered.]
“Then there must be abuses.”
“Certainly. There are many abuses.”
“But you will do away with them?”
“We try to more and more. But there are many abuses still.”
“But there are not great estates that must be broken up?”
“Yes. But there are those who believe that taxes will break them up.”
Robert Jordan, wiping out the stew bowl with bread, explained how the income tax and inheritance tax worked. “But the big estates remain. Also there are taxes on the land,” he said.
“But surely the big proprietors and the rich will make a revolution against such taxes. Such taxes appear to me to be revolutionary. They will revolt against the government when they see that they are threatened, exactly as the fascists have done here,” Primitivo said.
“It is possible.”
“They you will have to fight in your country as we fight here.”
“Yes, we will have to fight.”
That fictional conversation took place in 1937; Hemingway’s novel was published in 1940. Seventy years later, the real-world revolt of the big proprietors has been a runaway success. As Nicholas Kristoff remarked last month, we’re now worse than the banana republics Americans used to condemn for dangerous income disparity. The richest 1 percent of Americans runs off with 24 percent of the income, and Washington is about reward the thieves with tax cuts in the middle of the Great Recession.
We should have listened to Robert Jordan. The inexorable march of plutocratic authoritarianism in America is heartbreaking. Even now another “progressive,” Democratic administration is talking about using the barbarous 1917 Espionage Act against Wikileaks and Julian Assange. As Naomi Wolf says, that means they are turning dissent and criticism of power into treasonous offenses.
Flip the page of the newspaper and we find new 1973 Richard Nixon tapes in which Henry Kissinger tells the president, “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Mr. Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
It makes sense that contemporary events led me to revisit the history of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, when the wealthy, the Catholic Church and the military led a revolution against that nation’s infant democracy. I read Paul Preston’s powerful account of press coverage of the war, We Saw Spain Die. I re-read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Antony Beever’s recent Battle for Spain.
The story is complex. There was extraordinary heroism by Spanish Loyalists and their international comrades who came as volunteers to defend democracy. But there was also great ideological blindness. Western democracies sat back and let Hitler and Stalin refine their war machines, convinced that Soviet intervention on behalf of Spain’s new republic represented a greater threat than Hitler and Mussolini’s fascism. So much for the myth of the Greatest Generation. Western Marxists, socialists and communists let their own ideologies blind them to the truths of Stalinist terror.
There really is no moral brake on the globe’s rich and powerful. This is made clear by Kissinger’s cold and uncaring reference to the gassing of Jews in the U.S.S.R. just 28 years after WWII. Even “humanitarian” concern is only a “maybe.”
The raw immorality of power was all-too-obvious during the Spanish Civil War as well. For the rich and powerful, democracy is fine so long as it doesn’t interfere with the accumulation of wealth by the few at the certain cost of the impoverishment of the many.
We shouldn’t forget that lesson. But we also need to recapture some of the idealistic fervor of the defenders of Spain’s young republic, not on behalf of some ideology or other, but on behalf of the natural human desire for freedom.
Robert Jordan was right. We will have to fight. We’re not likely to find someone to make the fight for us. It can’t be lost on us that admission to the chambers of power often means the sacrifice of moral steadfastness. We can’t count on proxies.
The fight for freedom and egalitarian democracy is a romantic struggle. There is a reason the Hemingways and Orwells and many other artists and writers came to Spain to fight with the Loyalists. It’s the creative heart’s attraction to the spirit that inhabited Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Henry David Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many more.
Bruce Barthol, once of Country Joe and the Fish, penned the song above, “Taste of Ashes.” Laurie Lewis sings it, and it’s one of the many inspiring tracks of 2008 celebration of the Loyalist songs of the Spanish Civil War, Spain in My Heart. Listen. And fight.