In this 2009 interview originally published in Spanish, Noam Chomsky answers questions about military options and international factors in the Spanish Civil War, the role of the Stalinists in suppressing the revolution in Spain, the attitudes of intellectuals with regard to the revolution and their historical role more generally, and the chances for another libertarian revolution.
An Interview with Noam Chomsky on the Spanish Revolution – Jorell A. Meléndez Badillo (2009)
The Spanish Revolution: How It Is Perceived and Depicted in Intellectual Circles
First of all, I would like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to speak with you.
The main theme of this interview will be the Spanish Revolution. As we know, the CNT-FAI1 was one of the most powerful trade unions in Spain when the Spanish workers rose up in arms against the fascist rebellion of general Francisco Franco on July 19, 1936. On the very next day the president of [the Generalitat], Lluis Companys, met with García Oliver and Buenaventura Durruti2 in order to tell them that Catalonia was under the control of the workers and if they wanted he would resign and become just another worker in the struggle. After a long debate, the CNT and the FAI decided to allow the government to continue to exist in order to avoid a revolutionary dictatorship. Do you think that this was the best choice for the revolution? Also, what course do you think the revolution would have taken if the government had been dissolved at the very beginning?
Well, they had a very limited range of choices. You have to remember that the anarchist revolution was opposed by every one of the world powers. It was obviously opposed by the fascist powers. It was also opposed by the communist and western powers; standing up to this was no easy task. That is why there were various compromises along the way because keeping these countries at bay made for major difficulties. That is, the western nations more or less supported Franco although not as much as they would have liked. To the best of my knowledge, there was only one serious proposal about how to win the revolutionary war and that was made by Berneri, a prominent Italian anarchist who had emigrated to Spain and was assassinated by the communists during the “May Days”.3 He proposed, first of all, that they should not fight a conventional war because they could not win such a war. Instead, they should wage a guerrilla war in Spain, combined with support for a military uprising in North Africa. At the time, there was a nationalist revolution underway in North Africa against the French and the Spanish; and it was in North Africa that Franco’s army was based. Although it was not a radical revolution, being mostly a nationalist uprising for agrarian reforms and so on, Berneri’s suggestion was that by supporting it they could undermine the base of Franco’s army since it was basically composed of Moorish troops. I don’t know if this would have worked but it was the only chance for victory. On the other hand, the Republic never would have considered this and the reason for this was in order to maintain relations with France, England and the United States. Such a thing would have caused hysteria within the western community, it would not have been tolerated. It would have implied a dispute with the western powers while fighting against the communists and the [fascists]but at least there was a chance for victory.
At that time the capabilities of guerrilla warfare in achieving any objectives was still unknown. Today it is much more obvious after the experiences of the last seventy years so. I think that Berneri’s strategy was the only one that had any chance of success.
What do you think of Buenaventura Durruti and his role in the Spanish Revolution?
He was not an intellectual but he was a very effective military leader and he was committed to the anarchist cause. I don’t know how much he understood about anarchism but he was committed to it.
James Joll claimed that, “just like the funeral procession of Kropotkin in Russia, Durruti’s funeral was the final public expression of the power of the Spanish anarchist movement”.4 Do you think this is a valid argument, considering the fact that the CNT resisted the dictatorship and is still active today, although on a lesser scale in comparison, influencing a large number of organizations and individuals around the world?
It has had a great deal of influence and not on such a small scale. Sure, now it is smaller but, for example, I was in Madrid in 1986 and it just happened to be on “May Day”,5 and there were demonstrations by the CNT all over Madrid. I think they missed their chance but when the Franco dictatorship came to an end, they began to emerge. It wasn’t easy and they made mistakes but they began to germinate. In fact, I think that now, in December,6 they will commemorate the centenary of the founding of the CNT so I think that they still exist but of course, it was not easy, especially after the “May Days” when there was a violent attack that destroyed most of the collectives in Aragon and Catalonia. The communists were in command, that is, the Communist Party and its police, and they definitely did not tolerate an anarchist revolution.
Stalin’s support for the Republic was totally cynical. He only wanted, or merely hoped, to make some kind of deal with the West. When it became clear, especially after Munich, that the West wanted to divert Hitler eastward, Stalin offered his support, stealing the Spanish treasury without any kind of interest in supporting the Republic which ended up being crushed.
The Western powers, including the United States, supported the fascists. So let’s just take the example of the United States which was technically neutral. First of all it imposed an embargo that prevented the shipment of arms to the Republic but the fascists did not need these arms from the United States since they obtained theirs from Italy and Germany by way of France. The other aspect of the embargo was worse since the one thing the fascist countries could not provide to Franco was oil. The United States imposed an oil embargo, on paper. Meanwhile, the “Texaco Oil Company”, whose history is familiar to you, was under the management of a self-declared Nazi, who diverted the oil destined for the Republic to Franco instead. I remember reading about this when I was a child. I read it in the left-wing press while the Department of State denied any knowledge about this. Of course, everyone knows about the contributions made by Roosevelt to fascism in Spain. While Roosevelt appeared very angry in public because a U.S. businessman was discovered selling a pistol to the Republic or something, it was pure hypocrisy. We also have to add that France and England did not want the Republic to survive.
This was all part of the general attitude and people tend to forget it but the West favored fascism. In fact, Mussolini was very much admired.
In your essay, “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship”, you argue that the republican forces thought they could get help from the western democracies. Where did this idea of western support come from?
Well, that was a common illusion. For example, the Vietnamese, that is, Ho Chi Minh, thought that they could get the support of the United States. It was partly hope and partly illusion. The West has a monstrous propaganda system. Take the ceremony for the Nobel Prize yesterday,7 for example. The only positive thing you can say in defense of the Nobel Prize committee is that they gave the prize to someone for doing nothing. He is a person with a higher moral level than most of the people who have won the prize but they were speaking of his aspirations and they took them seriously. That is, Europe is fascinated by his personality but if they pay any attention to his actions, they look the other way immediately. The propaganda is extremely effective because it is self-imposed and the persons who accept it internalize this mentality. It is worse when people accept it.
The Spanish Republic did not have many options. It was basically supported by Stalin, but only as long as it benefited him, and the West would not support it because it did not really have much of an objection to fascism.
Some authors like Eric Hobsbawm, for example, disparage the popular factor of the Revolution and argue that only the Spanish Communist Party could have led it because of its high level of organization. What do you think about this position?
Well, he is no friend of mine and we have debated this in the past. He does not like the anarchists and in his opinion they were a regression to primitive times. In fact, he calls them “primitive rebels” and I think that he is wrong about this. He was a member of the Communist Party and was loyal to the leadership of that party in Russia. The Communist Party was a right-wing organization. That is, it was a party of the police and the bourgeois regime. Why should they lead a revolution? Because it would have benefited Stalin. They were in charge of the government. What happened was that Stalin pulled the rug out from under their feet as soon as they ceased to serve his purposes. What else would you expect?
I think that Hobsbawm simply did not understand what the communist parties were all about. Sure, they did some good things. Let’s take the United States, for example. Everyone in my family was a member of the Communist Party in the thirties but for them it had nothing to do with Russia. It was about labor, civil rights and union organizing. The Communist Party was at the forefront of the most decent reformist programs. So if you wanted to work in common for the working people, it was just natural to support it.
But on an international level this makes no sense at all. You could argue about the details but from my point of view Lenin and Trotsky were the biggest opponents of socialism in Russia from the beginning. On the basis of what they considered to be solid Marxist principles, Russia was a backward peasant society and was not ready for revolution so it would have to be guided towards the revolution by way of forced industrialization, history’s iron curtain and all the rest. This was not Marx’s vision. Marx was very interested in the possibilities of a peasant revolution in Russia. During the last years of his life he studied Russia intensively, using the data compiled by the Narodniks,8 who were researching the peasant society in which they were very interested but all of this was suppressed by the European Marxists. The social democrats did not like them and the Bolsheviks did not like them; they were more oriented towards the city so they despised the rural peasantry.
So you will notice that after 1917 the peasant organizations were destroyed by Lenin and Trotsky. They did not want the social revolutionaries, the left social revolutionaries, Makhno’s army9 and so on, so they got rid of them. I think that Hobsbawm’s view was that there has to be a disciplined vanguard party that can carry out this project. I did not call this a revolution because it would not be a revolutionary project, it would basically be a process of forced industrialization.
There is another theory, supported by most of the sympathizers of the Communist Party, in which they argue that the anarchists were incapable of leading the revolution because they lacked what Antonio Gramsci called “organic intellectuals”, intellectuals within the working class who could organize the revolution. What do you think about this argument?
There is something to it, anarchism is not attractive to the intellectuals because it does not offer them power. Bakunin wrote about this in one of the most perceptive predictions of modern time. He called attention to, and observed, the rise of what he called a new class of scientific intelligentsia, modern intellectuals with an alleged technical knowledge of rule. This knowledge is a farce but this alleged technician of the organizational knowledge of rule is Gramsci’s intellectual. Bakunin predicted that they would take one of two directions.
Some would try to seize power themselves in the wake of a popular revolution and then create a “Red Bureaucracy”, which would be the most oppressive tyranny and system that the world has ever known. The others would recognize that they could not seize power themselves so they would become the servants of those who do hold power in the democracies of state capitalism and they will be the ones who manage them, technocrats and so on. You could say that both of them beat the people with the people’s stick. They will claim that they are representing the people when in reality they are hitting them with their own stick. This is the best prediction concerning what actually happened.
The Bolsheviks took the first path and the intellectuals in the West took the second, and were quite proud of themselves. The latter call themselves technocrats and pragmatic intellectuals. In fact, I once compared texts by Robert McNamara with texts by Lenin and they were almost identical. The only difference was that McNamara talks about God while Lenin does not, but basically they have the same idea: “We must manage and control society with an iron hand if necessary, for the well being of the people.” This is the dominant idea among the liberal intellectuals like Lippmann, Galvani and the rest, and it is totally reasonable. It is a way to obtain power and they see it as a form of altruism, just like the fascists.
Personalities aside, the political and social analysis of Bakunin was correct. That is, there are intellectuals who do not follow this current but they are dismissed and set aside; they are kept marginalized. This type of intellectual existed among the anarchists, like Camillo Berneri, for example. But he is not considered to be an intellectual because he did not serve power. The term intellectual is very funny, it has nothing to do with intellectual ability or intellectual dedication like creativity or something like that. The term, intellectual, is basically reserved for those who serve power or in the case of enemies we use the term dissidents. In our country we call those who serve power intellectuals, and we call the others lunatics, madmen or something.
This goes far back in our history. Take the Bible and its legends, for example. In the Bible we can find people whom we may call intellectuals and the term that the Bible gives them is prophets, which is a bad translation of a little-known Hebrew word. But let’s think about what these prophets did. They were providing political analyses, they were criticizing the king, they pleaded for mercy for the orphans of the villages, and so on. These people were what we would call dissident intellectuals and they were treated horribly. There were intellectuals that were treated very well and these were the Pharisees, but centuries later, as in the New Testament, they were called false prophets, but as I mentioned, this was much later. Meanwhile, the dissident intellectuals were treated miserably while the Pharisees were treated very well and this is our history up until the present with very few exceptions. So I do not take Gramsci very seriously.
It is obvious why the media would provide a distorted account of what really happened in Spain because it was a process that demonstrated the ability and the power of the people once they are organized and struggle together for a common goal. What impresses me above all are the omissions, or misconceptions, within the Academy, or academic circles, and even within leftist or more progressive circles.
They are the same. That is, I have done a lot of critical work on the media but my point of view has always basically been the same and it applies to the academy and other intellectuals as well. The reason for the focus on the media is to display its anatomy because it is very influential. Besides, it is easy to study and if you want to do comparative work you can do it with the media. If you try to do the same thing from an academic or specialist position, it is much more difficult. In fact, the article that you mentioned is mostly about intellectuals rather than the media. And it is about liberal intellectuals. Let’s take the liberal left-wing intellectuals, they will write their version of the Spanish Revolution and about the Bolshevik Party, which was composed for the most part of intellectuals.
But there is very little difference in their approach. If you are part of the academic world you do not have the direct pressure on you that you have working for the media. If you work for the media you are basically working for the state or some corporation. In the academic world there is little interaction with these forces so there is some room for flexibility and dissident intellectuals. For example, I have survived in the academic world but I could not have survived in the “New York Times”. In fact, to take a somewhat dramatic illustration, I regularly write op-eds that are distributed via the New York Times Syndicate but are never published in the United States. They are distributed in places like Mexico and Greece but this is completely understandable. The academic world leaves room or a chance for flexibility. In MIT I have survived because it is a university based on mathematics and science and it doesn’t really care what I do in my free time. It is not an ideological center like Harvard. Take Hobsbawm, he survived in the academic world and certainly never would have survived in the media.
We know there was a whole range of factors at the economic, historical and social levels, in addition to what has been called a “preparatory process”, which made the Revolution possible.
Then do you think that there is a possibility for another libertarian revolution?
I think so. But you know that it took about 50 years of preparation and various attempts so that the revolution was in the minds of the people and when the opportunity arose they only did what was already in their minds. That is, it is something like the reconstruction of capitalism in Europe after the Second World War. Germany was devastated but its reconstruction did not take long because they knew what they were doing. Germany was objectively in the same situation as Central Africa but its different level of consciousness and understanding about what had to be done made it a great power, like Japan.
It was the same in Spain. The poor peasants, concerning whom various works have been written and they are very moving, knew exactly what to do. We can see it concretely when, right now for example, part of the state capitalist project is to finance the economy. They reinforce the financial institutions in order to undermine other institutions. So General Motors is dismantling its factories while it receives tax breaks that make it richer than ever. This is the nature of today’s capitalist state. It is the dismantling of these factories that is destroying the labor force of the communities like Detroit, at the same time that other industrial cities are also collapsing. Meanwhile, Obama’s Secretary of Transportation is in Spain using the money from the federal stimulus package, designed to stimulate the economy of the United States, to sign contracts in Spain for the construction of high velocity trains which the United States needs so badly. However, those factories that are being dismantled could build these trains. They could rebuild the rail system while giving employment to trained workers and so on. But since there is nothing in it for the banks, they go to Spain to do this. But what about the labor force itself? That is, if they become conscious of themselves and obtain support, they could simply seize the factories and begin to produce what they need. They may encounter some opposition at first but if they obtain popular support, it could happen. What is needed is consciousness raising and organization, and this is what they lack. But I do not think that this is something remote, it is right under the surface and could be developed. So, yes, there could be another libertarian revolution.
“This interview was conducted on Tuesday, October 13, 2009 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Jorell A. Meléndez, graduate student in History.”
Translated from the Spanish in November 2013.
- 1.The National Confederation of Labor and the Iberian Anarchist Federation. The CNT was a trade union organization while the FAI was a militant anarchist group within the trade union. Both are still active today but they are not affiliated.
- 2.It should also be pointed out that other people, including the Argentine intellectual Diego Abad de Santillán, also attended this meeting.
- 3.The first week of May 1937 is often referred to as the “May Days”, when the Communist Party and the Unified Socialist Party staged an offensive against the workers of the CNT and UGT who controlled the central offices of the telephone company in order to impose total control over the republican camp. During the May Days, hundreds of people were killed and thousands were wounded.
- 4.The interviewer appears to be referring to James Joll’s book, The Anarchists, Chapter IX, in which Joll states, “The death of Durruti deprived the anarchists of one of their most famous and most ruthless legendary heroes, and his funeral in Barcelona provided that city with the last of its great demonstrations of anarchist power, with 200,000 supporters in the streets – an occasion perhaps reminiscent of that in Moscow twenty-four years before, when Kropotkin’s funeral had given the Russian anarchists a last opportunity of parading their strength before the communists finally closed in on them.” [American Translator’s note.]
- 5.May Day commemorates the deaths of the Chicago martyrs and is celebrated by the working class throughout the world.
- 6.This interview was conducted in October 2009. The centenary of the CNT will be celebrated on November 1, 2010, not in December 2009.
- 7.The reference is to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama.
- 8.Members of the Russian middle class in the second half of the 19th century who developed theories of a populist type.
- 9.One of the leaders of the Dyelo Truda group and of the revolutionaries of the Ukraine during the Russian Revolution who were violently suppressed by Leon Trotsky and the Red Army