February 2017        

How do we see our history?

Seán Edwards

The little girl Mafalda is the creation of the Argentine cartoonist Quino (Joaquín Salvador Lavado) over fifty years ago. Mafalda, Susanita and their pals are noted for innocently raising serious questions, like this one.

     How do we study history? How do we commemorate historical events? The centenary of the Easter Rising last year showed how contentious a political question this can be.
     Looking back, we can see a courageous rebellion, unfortunately violent (in the middle of a war!); but this all belongs in the past, and haven’t we a lovely little state now, a grand little country to do business in?
     Looking forward, we can see that the issues of independence and sovereignty have not gone away, and the blows struck a century ago can continue to inspire us today. The CPI used the centenary to emphasise the continuing relevance of the teaching of James Connolly.
     The centenary of the Russian Revolution will be even more hotly contested. The establishment and its embedded journalists and academics will be most anxious to demonstrate that there is no alternative to capitalism. They claim to have buried socialism. Yet, as they have no solution to the current crisis of capitalism, maybe they are not so sure, so they must shout all the louder.
     A serious study of the Revolution and the experience of socialism in the twentieth century shows precisely the opposite: that there is another way for humanity. The road towards the liberation of the working people of the world has proved a hard road to follow; it remains the only road. Rosa Luxemburg famously posed the question “socialism or barbarism?”—more relevant, more urgent than ever, that is if humanity survives.
     So, socialists will justly take pride in the Russian Revolution, when workers took power into their own hands. It remains a beacon for all who fight for the liberation of humanity.
     This month the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Jarama will be commemorated in Madrid, with special reference to the International Brigades, who came from many different countries to defend the Spanish Republic from fascism.
     The International Brigades provide a continuing and much-needed example of solidarity with people in the front line of the struggle against reaction and oppression.
     The defeat of the Second Republic was a terrible tragedy for the Spanish people, from which they have not fully recovered, partly because of a reluctance to confront their history. The purpose of the commemoration is to bring this history to light and to learn from it. Look at the condition of Spain today, with its insoluble crisis, with its austerity policies imposed on working people, with its absurd monarchy. It is time for the Spanish people to consider the establishment of a Third Republic.
     Crisis produces monsters, as Gramsci said. Fascism arose out of the crisis of the twenties and thirties. And how did the “democracies” react then? They tried to use fascism—witness Churchill’s letter to Mussolini in 1927: “If I had been an Italian I am sure I would have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”
     So when Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany provided troops to help Franco overwhelm the Spanish Republic, Britain and France stood back, in the name of “non-intervention,” in practice obstructing the defence of the Republic and impeding the volunteers for the International Brigades.
     The present crisis produces monsters also. The best-known of these are Al-Qa‘ida and the “Islamic State.” It is almost forgotten that these had their genesis in the plans of the United States and its allies for “regime change” in Afghanistan, which at the time had a progressive secular government, supported by the Soviet Union. They recruited the lowest, most backward elements who purported to act in the name of Islam, and provided them with guns and money.
     It is true that the Islamists have bitten the hand that fed them, in New York, Paris, London, and Madrid. Yet Zbigniew Brzezinski, the architect of this policy, regarded “a few irate Muslims” as a price worth paying.
     The policy of using the jihadists continues. It is not a new policy: even in the aftermath of the Second World War the West took in Nazi collaborators from Croatia and Ukraine, nursed them and kept them and their organisations for decades, in case they might come in useful some time.
     Perhaps Quino’s little girls are fortunate to have any lessons in history at all, and to be able to criticise them. History is taught less and less, and where it is taught it is more often than not trivialised, taken out of context, reduced to personalities, the posthumous psychoanalysis of political leaders or, even worse, to good guys and bad guys.
     Yet an understanding of history is vital for human progress, most especially for the working class and for socialists. Commemorations are occasions for deepening our understanding of our history—not out of nostalgia or obsession with the past but to comprehend the present and to look forward.
     Mafalda and Susanita tell us that we cannot understand our history without looking forward. Neither can we look forward without understanding our history.

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