“Transform the world,” said Marx; “change life,” said Rimbaud. These two watchwords are one for us.
Something takes place in revolutionary moments that have been studied and captured in writing — to the extent that it can be captured in retrospect at all — only rarely, where the Marxian concept of the “class-for-itself” steps out of textbook exegesis and “seizes the masses,” something akin to a materialist version of Hegel’s idea that “the truth is a Bacchanalian revel in which no member is not drunk.”
Eighty years ago saw the last remaining intransigent forces of the Spanish Revolution crushed.
This revolution was the most advanced proletarian uprising of the twentieth century; it is therefore particularly fruitful for us to criticize its “half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness,” as Marx once recommended.
Such criticism has been in no short supply recently among communists reflecting on the motley lot of twentieth century revolutionary episodes, most of which ultimately proved in their effects, whatever their particular class composition, to be “bourgeois revolutions with red flags.” That is, revolutions that oversaw the eradication of feudal domination and the capitalization of agriculture in underdeveloped countries: not transitions out of capitalism, but to full-fledged capitalism.
This recognition has led to much interesting disussion among groups like Théorie Communiste and Endnotes regarding the intrinstic historical limits of revolutionary movements in previous ‘cycles of struggle,’ which were determined by earlier moments in the development of the capital-relation itself. But this much-needed historicization and materialist grounding of struggle too often seems to result in the attitude that previous moments of contestation have little to nothing important to teach us. This is hardly a determinate overcoming of the position of those whose prescription for everything is a return to trade unionism or who want to LARP 1917 ad infinitum, but a rather abstract reversal of it — in this brave new cycle of struggles, we’re happily free of all the class-affirming limits of the decrepit old workers’ movement. But the social-democratic and ‘economic nationalist’ chatter now ringing ‘round the world proves old illusions don’t die so easily as we might hope. Material conditions change unevenly, remaining striated with non-contemporaneous contradictions, and as they do, they tend to resurrect old corpses in mutated zombie forms just as often as they produce new living movements. Therefore we let the dead bury their dead at our own peril, lest they end up burying us.
Loren Goldner has provided one of the better in-depth blow-by-blow historical analyses of the Spanish Revolution, and what we might still learn from its strengths and its limitations. We’d like, however, to draw attention to an often-neglected contemporary document of that revolution to draw a rather more general lesson that should illuminate the hope at the heart of our radical pessimism. We’re not interested here in the sterile hypothetical of if generalized commodity production could have been suspended in Spain in the 1930s; it wasn’t. We’re interested rather in what does happen when people attempt to make their own history, whatever the limits of their horizon and however that attempt ends up.
Mary Low and Juan Bréa were surrealist poets who traveled to Spain in 1936 and fought in the P.O.U.M. militias alongside those forces opposed to the fascists, the republicans, and the Stalinists. The Red Spanish Notebook, available here, is their joint account of that experience. Their notebook, with its keen sensitivity to fluctuations of social atmosphere both subtle and striking, provides a remarkable first-hand glimpse into how the people of revolutionary Spain began to discover new ways of living, thinking, and interacting in those years.
In non-revolutionary periods, it seems almost impossible to imagine that the world could be transformed by the tired, miserable, over- or under-worked people we know and see all around us, unable to communicate, separated, suspicious, and competing with each other, voting for this-or-that demagogue left or right, our own activity appearing as a seemingly objective fatalistic force beyond our control which implacably dominates us, reified consciousnesses assuming that the way things are now are the way they’ll always be. It’s only reasonable that we’re quicker to defend the present state of things, to cling to the jobs that we need in order to survive (so long as social reproduction is held hostage to value-production), than to think of abolishing those jobs along with ourselves as a class — such are the real limits of our immediate material circumstances.
But as the events described by Low and Bréa prove, once a hic Rhodus, hic salta point is passed and fighting back, rioting, taking up arms, stopping or reorganizing work, communising goods, breaking with everyday routine and calcified hierarchies, and communicating with one another becomes a necessity, once a wave of revolutionary contestation begins, once people are forced into activities that upend the world around them, their consciousness rapidly follows suit. Once, as C.L.R. James put it, social revolution becomes “something they can see and touch,” the world no longer appears as a quantity apart, natural, inevitable, and unchangable, but as a field of forces in which we’re immersed, which we can alter, in turn altering ourselves: as an historical process that can be made otherwise. The dialectical interpenetration of practice and thought that allows us to “comprehend the present as a becoming” (Lukács) then becomes manifest — this “coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change” is what Marx meant by “revolutionary practice.”
This is what is missed by those who still claim proletarians need politicians to represent us, or a vanguard to direct us like some passive object, just as it’s missed by all those who say the woke must wage an interminable ‘war of position’ for ‘cultural hegemony’ to change everybody’s benighted ideas before the revolution can at last begin (spoiler alert: for these people, it never does, they just get cushy jobs in a ‘counter-hegemonic cultural apparatus’).
Low and Bréa remind us how quickly and profoundly the process of acting collectively to transform material circumstances at the same time transforms consciousness, culture, attitudes, social relationships, friendship, love, even the very constitution of what is is to be ‘man’ or ‘woman.’ Thus their activity in Spain, along with that of Péret, Penrose, and the legions of revolutionaries who fought, lived, and died without ever thinking of themselves as ‘poets,’ undoubtedly represents surrealism’s finest hour: the discovery that Breton’s “supreme point,” that “diamond that is no more the soul of ice than of fire” is not a “point of the mind” at all.
These verses, written by Mary Low ten years later, hint a little at the power of such an experience, if only as a trace:
Since I’ve known you,
I feel the intimate joy of scissors;
I love cats and nutmeg,
the tears of mad music in the night,
the sigh of the fire among the ashes.
Since I’ve known you,
the whip knows my name,
the stairs and roses grow spurs;
the palms bend their hair
to look at me in all the mirrors.
Dawn opens to me its wound
with the sound of a flute
that tears my heart.
I feel like the omega:
filled with hot silk
infinite and absent.
“Rencontre” translated from the French by ISR.press