Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Friday, August 07, 2009

On John Cornford

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.

Labels: , , , ,


At 3:13 pm, Blogger faceless said...

thanks for the info

At 1:37 pm, Blogger maps said...

Thanks for the mention. I did a piece on Tom Wintringham a couple of years ago where I talked about Galloway and Spanish Civil War historiography and the way reality gets swept under the red carpet once politicians start celebrating heroes:

One of the poems in my first collection dwells on Cornford, whose depaerture for Spain apparently had as much to do with a desire to escape his missus and child as anything else:

Did you see that we have a new book out in NZ on the Spanish Civil War veterans from this country?

At 11:49 pm, Blogger Croydon Rumax Hercunt said...

Why when you mean Catalonia, you say Spain?

Spain has never existed.

The Catalonians (the working class Catalonians, then the immense majority) were fighting against the fascist centralists: the church, the military, the castilians thieves.

Catalonia is not Spain. Spain is a geographical entity with five nations: Catalonia, Basque Country, Portugal, Galicia, and Andalusia-Castile.

The "spanish" language as andalusian is a silly reduction no person with a modicum of intelligence should ever use. As "sapnish" is portuguese, or basque, or Catalonian as andalusian, ok?

The Stalinist in Catalonia lost our war. They helped the fascists against the Catalonians and the Catalonian party: Partit Obrer d'Unificació Marxista, the POUM.

Actually, Orwell gets it (right), rather. And most other "historians" get shit.

It's only fascist, francoist, propaganda to continue using the war of Catalonian Independence in 1936-39 as who knows what. I know there were other factors involved in the war, but for the Catalonians one thing mattered over all others: its Independence. That's why no (left-leaning) power came in our support. It was up to a few individuals to come and help. While the fascists and nazis carried the war for the castilian military ecclesiastical side. Damn them all. May they rot in disgrace for ever and ever.

At 2:53 pm, Anonymous Stan Smith said...

I was the 'scholarly adviser' on the George Galloway/Cornford 'Great Lives' broadcast. I sought to qualify the assumption that Cornford, though he remained a loyal CPGB cadre,was an unquestioning advocate of Comintern policy in Spain. He had doubts about the 'Popular Front' strategy if it meant appeasing the bourgeois parties at the expense of Anarchist and POUM workers, whom he saw as genuine if misguided revolutionaries, to be won to the cause. His reservations about the 7th Congress line (manifest in his poem 'Full Moon at Tierz') indicate that many of the assumptions of Third Period, 'Class against Class' strategy persisted in his thinking. I doubt if he would have endorsed the pogrom against the non-CP left in Barcelona in 1937, or the assassination of Nin, etc. Unfortunately, such 'nuances' of left politics did not survive the producer's cutting-room floor. I have written about Cornford in this perspective in Stan Smith, '"Hard as the Metal of my Gun": Communism, Masculinity and John Cornford's Poetry of the Will', in issue 7 of 'Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism', to be published in November 2009. Details of the number will shortly be available on the website of the Raymond Williams Society.

At 9:49 am, Anonymous big and tall suit said...

Look so old but he good looking on his mans suit.


Post a Comment

<< Home