The Spike or Victoria College Review 1937
The Meaning of Spain
The Meaning of Spain
Amid that derangement of signposts which newspapers call "the contemporary situation" there is one tangible determinant which all can cherish—our cultural heritage. This cultural tradition, merely the externalisation of the aspirations of man. has down the years attained a unity and totality meaningful to every Tom, Dick and Harry and real enough to demand preservation.
Strangely enough, except for occasional breakdowns, culture with its "passion to prevail" has been able since the middle ages to look to its own livelihood. It has only been within the lifetime of the present generation that really serious disintegration has occurred. The overthrow of an economic order has meant the intrusion of the destructive element into more than one compartment of living. And fascism, like a circus strong-man run amuck, is careering through Europe on an errand of annihilation.
Small wonder therefore that with such a charade before them, many writers and thinkers have revised their affiliations with the common people and set about concerning themselves with their duties as political units. Thus the formation of the International Association of Writers for the Defence of Culture, with such members as H. G. Wells, Ernst Toller, Andre Gide, Aldous Huxley, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Naomi Mitchison. Rebecca West, Andre Malnaux. Julien Benda, Egon Kisch, Heinrich Mann and Leon Feuchtwanger. This body takes its task of defending culture against the inroads of war. tyranny and fascism, with an intense and workmanlike sincerity.
On the English front we have seen the incisive social awareness of the New Signatures group of poets and writers, the establishment of Left Review and the founding of the Left Book Club. While in the United States the American Writers' Congress has met several times, its primary purpose—"the exposition of all phases of a writer's participation in the struggle against war, the preservation of civil liberties, and the destruction of fascist tendencies every-where."
Now it is as obvious as a lamp-post to every alert mind that all this ado is not about nothing. But about something gravely threatening what Matthew Arnold called "a passion for sweetness and light." An ever-widening realisation of the necessity for individual concern is the surest hope we have of splintering the despairing inactivity of the average man.
During the past sixteen months these issues have received undeniable and direct expression in Spain—the reluctance of the Spanish workers to bestow the freedom of Madrid on Francisco Franco.
In 1931 the Spanish Republic was established by the Spanish people.
From 1931 to 1933 the Republican Government attempted to change the Spain of the 16th century into the Spain of the 20th century. It decreed the separation of church and state and proclaimed freedom of conscience. It reformed the army. It laid plans for agricultural settlement. It set up a public school system. It announced a policy of international peace. In its constitution and laws the Republic opened the way for the establishment of all those rights of personal liberty, progressive government, and advancement in education and culture which have long been the heritage of the English race.
But Spain of the 16th century—the landed aristocracy, the army and the higher clergy—rose in defence of their positions of special privilege and political preferment. These elements opposed the Republic with parliamentary filibustering, a deliberate campaign of agricultural and industrial sabotage, and armed assaults. They emasculated the agrarian law. They organised terrorist gangs. By means of all this they even succeeded in recapturing political power for a time. In February 1936 came the Popular Front Government, which restored the constitution of 1931 and proceeded to make it effective. It released political prisoners; restored states' rights in Catalonia; renewed the land programme; re-established non-religious schools and started on a course of liberal reform. For the reactionaries this meant disaster, they realised the game was up, they saw that as long as political democracy existed in Spain the people would keep them out of office, they finally resorted to open rebellion. That rebellion began on July 18th, 1936.
The rebels marched out of their barracks with the aristocracy and Juan March's millions behind them and the known support of Germany page 44 and Italy; they were met by unorganised, half-armed hordes of workers with the compact and determined backing of freedom-loving men and women the world over, and this backing was not just dimly-felt sentiment, goodwill expressed at a distance. It was as real and reassuring as a handshake.
Within a few weeks, workers, peasants, artists, writers, and scholars began to come in their hundreds—men who had denied the "old lie," men with a desperate clear-headed awareness. At first, they fought alongside the Spanish workers, but as their numbers grew the International Brigade was formed, and at their own request they went where the danger was greatest.
Many hundreds were killed, but Madrid still stands. There have been wars before this in which men have fought for the liberty of small nations, but never before has there been an army of international socialism. An army of volunteers, free from the romanticism of other days, which fights with full knowledge of the political issues and social implications involved.
Let us turn to some of the writers who left their desks to fight for democracy and Spain.
First, Ralph Fox—killed on January 3. His talent as an author and his passion for liberty were equally outstanding. A tribute signed by 29 leading English authors, members of the International Association of Writers for the Defence of Culture, ends with these words:—"The death of Ralph Fox as well as of the other young Englishmen with him can only be understood if it is made entirely clear that this was not an adventure, not the result of quixotic temper nor spleen, nor rashness, but that these men valued what they gave freely, were in service to their fellows and died at it, and understood the danger they went out to." The "other young Englishmen" were many.
There was Charles Donnelly, volatile Irish poet; Christopher St. John Sprigg, author of Illusion and Reality, a fruitful and penetrating exploration of the sources of poetry; and Wilfred Macartney, author of Walls Have Mouths.
Of special note are John Cornford and Griffith Maclaurin—both university men.
John Cornford, poet son of Francis Cornford, had a brilliant career at Cambridge where he edited "Student Vanguard." but his finest work was extra-mural—the unifying of the University Labour Federation being one of his most notable achievements. Of Griffith Maclaurin, Auckland University and Cambridge graduate, Victor Gollancz wrote, "by his death the whole profession of letters is honoured."
Numbered among those not yet dead are W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, I. H. Win-tringham, John Sommerfield, Ludwig Renn, Andre Malnaux, Ralph Bates and Ernest Hemingway. These men have had more to offer than the tobacco smoke of intellectuals, their convictions have attained realness. Their action must be one which will radically recast current literary opinion. The writer is ceasing to be the motley intellectual gigolo of the bourgeoisie. Perhaps not many days hence he may be one with the people.
These hard-headed mufti Byrons who have fought long months in Spain inevitably command our admiration. Of those of us who cherish the liberty of the individual, and despise all forms of fascism and tyranny they demand more—a heightened awareness and a more intimate personal concern. To-day is che struggle. But let it not be a vicarious one. Above all let us not make of these men attentuated projections of our own aspirations. There must be no concessions to faintheartedness.
"the stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon."