THERE ARE FEW SADDER STORIES from the 20th century than that of the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, the right-wing general Francisco Franco attempted to overthrow the democratic leftist government in a coup. The country quickly fell into two camps: the Nationalists, a group of fascist, Hitler-backed counterrevolutionaries fighting for Franco, and the Republicans, a government-led coalition of left-wing groups including democrats, anarchists, Stalinists, anti-Stalinist communists, trade unionists, Basque nationalists, Catalan nationalists, and international freedom fighter brigades.
One of the international freedom fighters was writer George Orwell. Orwell is best known for Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, which are often read as anti-communist, but Orwell himself was a lifelong democratic socialist, and he fought for a Trotskyist militia in the war.
In his book Homage to Catalonia, he talks about his fight, and how, as the war progressed, the left-wing coalition began to crumble. The anarchists and socialists were slowly repressed, undermined, and out-maneuvered by the Stalinists, who ran an effective propaganda campaign that portrayed the other left-wing militia groups as traitorous agents of the fascists. Orwell himself would end up having to flee Spain altogether, barely eluding arrest by the Stalinists.
This internal division among the left would contribute to the Republican collapse, and to the eventual fascist victory. While his allies Hitler and Mussolini would both die in 1945 — the year we usually think of as the end of fascism — Franco would go on to rule Spain until his death in 1975.
Dissension in the progressive ranks
It’s hard to say whether the United States is in as dire a situation in 2016 as Spain was in 1936. On the one hand, we’re not in the midst of a civil war, and the country hasn’t collapsed. If Donald Trump’s track record is any indication, he wouldn’t be able to do anything as successfully as Francisco Franco. But on the other hand, Franco didn’t have nukes.
Where we can draw a clear lesson is from the collapse of Spain’s left wing in the 30’s. Thanks to infighting, slimy propaganda tactics, and a general unwillingness to compromise, the Spanish Republicans hobbled themselves at a time when they needed to be firing on all cylinders. And that is something US progressives in 2016 can relate to.
I went to Philadelphia last week with my wife, Steph, and my friend, Jesse, to enjoy the convention. We were in town for about an hour and a half before a drunk Bernie Bro shouted at us for having a private conversation about Hillary in less-than-condemnatory terms. “SHE STOLE THE ELECTION!” he slurred.
“She didn’t, though,” I said.
“Voting for the lesser of two evils is still voting for evil!” he shouted.
Jesse countered, “If you eat the lesser of two pizzas, you still get to eat pizza.”
It was then that I realized we were very drunk. So we shut that conversation down.
The next day, I caught the other side of it. People online — from my friends to Seth Meyers — were freaking out about unruly Bernie supporters in the convention. “Now is the time to be quiet!” Meyers shouted on his show. At the convention itself, Hillary supporters were given counter-chants that they were to take up to drown out Bernie supporters:
These are the counter-chants being distributed to Clinton delegates for when Bernie folks start heckling tonight pic.twitter.com/eNUtnBSzAM
— Ben Jacobs (@Bencjacobs) July 29, 2016
The justification, supposedly, was that we needed to show a united front against the incredible danger of Donald Trump, and the sound of dissenting protests in the arena would irreparably damage that unity.
In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell talks about how the Stalinists would frequently suggest that members of their rival factions on the left were actually saboteurs, people working with Franco to ensure that the fascists would win the war.
It’s hard not to see the same sort of disunity hysteria being directed at the Bernie-or-Bust crowd. That disunity is being overblown. In July 2008, 60% of Clinton supporters planned on voting for Obama. In July 2016, 90% of Bernie supporters plan on voting for Clinton.
I wasn’t able to get into the convention myself. But Steph works in politics, so she scored a ticket to the DNC during the roll call. And when it came to the issues, she said, she couldn’t find the disunity everyone was talking about.
“Do we still want income and gender equality? Do we still want the freedom to love and marry who we want? Do we still want unfettered access to reproductive rights? Do we still want to save our environment? Do we still want to bring down the costs of education? Do we still want to change our criminal justice system? I don’t see the party not being unified on these fronts.”
Nothing is on fire!
Kae Lani Kennedy, Matador’s social media manager, went to Philly’s Truth to Power event during the convention, and she captured some photos of the truly incredible political art that had been put up to coincide with the convention.
These are all things that need to be said, and need to be said over and over again. There is no “right time” for telling the truth. There is no time when we should be quiet. And the fact that not everyone in Philadelphia fell in line behind Hillary isn’t a sign of weakness — it’s a sign of health on the left. While the Republican convention largely fell in line behind Donald Trump, the most morally bankrupt person to ever run for the highest office in the land, progressives held onto their ideals, and refused to be quiet.
It’s true that there is a hardcore group of Bernie-or-Busters who irrationally think Trump would be just as bad as Clinton, and who think that the political revolution ended with Sanders’ defeat. This is ridiculous. Bernie Sanders’ political revolution succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. If he had wanted to run third party, he could have. But what he did instead was join the Democratic Party in order to push it to the left. And in that regard, he succeeded. He’s got Hillary Clinton making noise about providing free college tuition for the middle class. He’s pushed her to at least consider opposing the TPP. She even talked about the 1% in her acceptance speech.
Let’s not try the Spain thing in America.
Democracy means having to compromise sometimes, and this is always frustrating. It means that literally no one ever gets exactly what they want. But last week, Philadelphia was electric. People were loud. They believed in things, and they wanted the world to know. And that’s healthy.
The left’s own worst enemy is itself. Donald Trump has managed to alienate women, latinos, Muslims, disabled people, and anyone with a conscience in this campaign. It’s 2016. You don’t win a Presidential election without those voting blocs. Trump briefly led in the polls last week, thanks to a post-convention bump, but he immediately squandered any momentum he had by attacking the parents of a fallen US soldier.
Alarmism about Trump is overblown. We are on the right side of history, and we are going to win this election as long as we turn up at the polls. In the meantime, the left doesn’t need to rip itself apart by getting paranoid about subversives (from the Hillary camp) or anti-progressive conspiracies (from the Bernie camp). If we can learn anything from Spain in the 30’s, it’s that it’s better to hang together and have our disagreements out in the open rather than to let our differences curdle and destroy us from within.
So Hillary supporters: Let the Bernie fans make some noise, and take your candidate to task when she does something undemocratic. And Bernie supporters: yes, your guy lost. But his political revolution has been a success. Stick with us and stay noisy, and good things will start happening.