The British historian, Paul Preston, recently published a biography of the late Spanish communist, Santiago Carrillo, called The Last Stalinist: the Life of Santiago Carrillo, William Collins, 2014. The book’s title, to put it politely, is a bit of a puzzle. That Santiago Carrillo was throughout his very long, intensely political life – he died in 2012 at the age of 97 – a treacherous, diehard, unrepentant Stalinist turns out to be a verdict for which the historical evidence is so compelling, inexhaustible and eventually numbing that it fills the bulk of the 336 pages of text in Preston’s book.
That Carrillo was the “Last Stalinist”, as the title states, remains the source of the puzzle. Never is this assertion even suggested anywhere in the book much less explained or argued. The reasons then that bring Preston to document copiously that Carrillo was not only a consummate Stalinist but then to opine that he was the last one as well, unfortunately, can only be a matter of speculation. So be it.
The speculation perhaps should go to Preston’s philo-communism, a conspicuous feature of his highly prolific and meticulous scholarship on the Spanish civil war and the subsequent decades-long Franco dictatorship. Preston rarely if ever speaks of “anti-communism” in this biography without attaching to it a sufficiently malignant adjective such as “virulent.” Preston likely could not conceive of an anti-communist who does not enjoy torturing political prisoners or bombing rural villagers. While one can never be too vehement and strenuous in their condemnation of “fascism”, much greater toleration is considered de rigueur for the critics of an ideology whose champions in the twentieth century murdered tens of millions of people across the globe while proclaiming their idealism, humanism and love for the toiling masses.
Stalin remains a huge problem for residents of the left disposed toward the worship of their own virtue manifested in various and sundry rituals dedicated to the execration of fascism and the lamentation of the excesses and evils of capitalism. How, the problem seems to be, does one, determined to find in the last 100 years or so some plausible evidence of communism’s contributions to human betterment, extricate Stalin, the communist, who in alliance with the western democracies triumphed over Hitler, the eternal face of Fascist evil, from Stalin, Hitler’s partner in the rape of Poland and the Baltic states, slave-state overseer and prolific mass-murderer?
The Stalin-problem is particularly thorny when it comes to the historiography of the Spanish Civil War which the left has for a long time fashioned into a simple inspirational morality play. The freedom-loving, democratically elected Republicans, supported by Stalin and defended by his international brigades, succumbed to the tides of Spanish fascism under the leadership of General Franco, goose stepping in a junior partnership with Hitler and Mussolini. This is the widely promulgated Manichean version of the Spanish Civil War – the forces of Good, advancing democracy, equality and freedom, confronting Evil in the form of fascism with its instinctive brutality, militarist atavism and racial bigotry. It is wonderfully free of any moral ambiguity – the losers, heroes and martyrs in opposition to tyranny and oppression, abandoned by the Western democracies; the winner, a cretin mediocrity who took his revenge, built his dictatorship and finally drifted into senescence.
Relieved of its romantic For Whom the Bell Tolls mythology, however, the historiography of the Spanish Civil War, thanks to the herculean labors of researchers like Burnett Bolloten and Stanley Payne, gives way in large part to the contemplation of communist (Stalinist) duplicity and treachery sufficiently cloaked in the rhetoric of democracy, equality and freedom. While contributing human and material assets to the Spanish Republicans ostensibly to resist the fascist rebels, Stalin’s NKVD agents were moving through Spain rounding up, torturing and murdering fellow communists, like Andreu Nin, taking control of the Army and insinuating themselves deeply into positions of governmental power. Stalin’s Trojan horse modus operandi in Spain was a dress rehearsal for how the communists would operate to support the unfolding of “democracy” in devastated counties like Bulgaria, Romania and Poland at the end of World War II, countries that we all know became models of social equality and so bursting with confidence, prosperity and opportunity that no one was allowed to leave.
During the period of the Spanish Civil War, Stalin’s assassins were also chasing his former revolutionary colleague, Leon Trotsky, around the globe until the Soviet-trained Spaniard, Ramon Mercader, murdered him in Mexico City in 1940. The Leon Trotsky of Stalin’s invention and dissemination was supposedly in league with the Franco and the fascists. In historical retrospect it is difficult to conceive how such a preposterous fiction could have taken hold with anyone, but Stalin’s dramaturgical skill in service to his jealousy and megalomania was second only to the eager gullibility of his acolytes and fellow travelers.
“Fascist” in the Stalin lexicon was his preferred term of abuse for whomever at the moment he saw as a competitor for power, his enemy du jour. Stalinists reserve their resentment for those who compete with them for power. When the Stalinists have power, competition is not allowed: when they are trying to get it they lie about, smear, malign, and, when they can, physically destroy the competition. Inside the Soviet Union during 1936 and 1937 Stalin purged the bulk of the old Bolsheviks like Bukharin and the senior officer corps. These were individuals, most of whom were deeply committed revolutionaries from the early days of the Bolshevik revolution. But Stalin feared and loathed them because he viewed them as competitors for his own power base within the party. Into Spain with the support of Carrillo and the Spanish communists, he exported his signature calumnies, purges, show trials with the accompanying tortures and executions. He moved his agents against the anarchists (chronicled by George Orwell), the POUM, Francisco Largo Caballero and the socialists, the entire spectrum of the non-Stalinist left in Spain. He did so with a ferocity and ruthlessness that was directed against the forces of Franco in lesser proportions. All of the non-Stalinist left at one time or another during the civil war linked to or tarnished with the label of fascist.
The Social Democrats in the western democracies during the early 1930s were “social fascists” until he needed their support in the Popular Front governments of France and Spain. Hitler, of course, was the epi-center of Nazism-Fascism except for the 1939-1941, Soviet-Third Reich friendship period when Stalin and the Fuhrer joined forces in the depredation of central Europe.
With “fascism” being so protean, flexible and reversible in its attachments, it seems absurd to try to render the Spanish Civil war as a battle of democracy against fascism when in many ways it more resembles a conflict of two vicious ideologies, or, if you will, a battle between fascists – brown ones and red ones.
Preston’s detailed and elaborate biography of Santiago Carrillo is immensely valuable in its capturing the essence of Stalinism in the life of a single individual, particularly his obsession with power and his unwavering, unprincipled will to destroy those who are obstacles to, or are competitors for, the prize of holding absolute domination over the lives of others. Like Stalin, Carrillo was a betrayer who left a staggering range of victims – his father, his mentor, his first wife, his colleagues, individuals who interfered with his political ambition deeply steeped in a utopian ideology. He was, as Preston demonstrates, heavily responsible for the arranging and carrying out the Paracuellos massacres of thousands of prisoners in the later months of 1936.
It is worth noting the irony at the beginning of Preston’s biography of Carrillo where he notes how much Franco and Carrillo were alike in certain fundamental ways – “[H]e shared with Franco a dedication to the constant rewriting and improving of his own life story … In his anxiety for advancement, he was always ready to betray or denounce comrades. Such ruthlessness was another characteristic that he shared with Franco.” (xii-xiii) For Preston, however, in Franco there never resided a single redeeming human quality. There is no best or worst that could be said about him. He is no more than a Spanish Hitler, as he argues in his book, The Spanish Holocaust, a moral monster who like Hitler deserves only execration.
But for Preston, his Spanish Stalinist, as the title of the last chapter suggests (“From Public Enemy No. 1 to National Treasure”), in the end achieves an atonement of sorts. “The best that can be said about him is that he played a key role in the transition to democracy by helping to convince the right of the moderation of the left.” (336) This “best” is no small achievement: the Spanish people, it now turns out, owe Carrillo a considerable debt. He becomes their benefactor, in effect, “helping” those on the right overcome their unreasonable fear that the left might be less moderate than they want to appear to be. The left remains pristine and the right grudgingly and belatedly moves toward compromise. So with this rendering, Carrillo late in his career becomes not the “last Stalinist”, as Preston puts it, but rather a former Stalinist, a good guy, so to speak, a pragmatist with the highest achievable aspirations in mind for a truly democratic Spain, not the lying, treacherous, morally repugnant ideologue he once was who connived, murdered, and betrayed nearly everyone around him in a good long imitation of the General Secretary of the CPSU, the man he so long served and admired.
“The worst that can be said about him,” continues Preston, “is that while the central objective of most of those with whom he worked and sometimes clashed was the struggle against Franco, his main priority was his own eminence. Accordingly, he betrayed his comrades and appropriated their ideas.” (336) Hardly! A lot worse can be said about him, some of it earlier in the book by Preston himself. However, with this final rendering, yet one more Stalinist-Carrillo emerges, not the “last” one or the even the “former’ one as noted above, but the only Stalinist. Stalinism in Spain, thus it would seem, was largely confined to the person of Carrillo, a disappointing aberration in a collection of otherwise virtuous individuals, committed to a free and democratic Spain. Had Carrillo and his people, not Franco prevailed, all no doubt would have been forgiven, and reconciliation and democracy for the Spanish people would have come to fruition forty years earlier.
It should finally be noted that Preston mentions in passing Carrillo’s 1977 speaking tour in the United States with stops at Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins University (318). No mention is to be found anywhere of protests at these universities by virulent anti-communists or anyone perhaps offended by such a gracious welcome extended to a butcher and errand-boy for one of history's most vile dictators.* From The Harvard Crimson, November 22, 1977: “Professors and graduate students from local universities will dine with [Santiago] Carrillo at the Center for European Studies before this evening's speech, Peter M. Lange, Associate Professor of Government said. Carrillo will hold a press conference at the Center at 4 p.m. today, he added.” So, last or not, unrepentant or not, for those Stalinists who live long enough, there is forgiveness and dinner with the Harvard faculty.
*Dedicated to my good friend, Tom Moore, who would have been deeply offended.
*Dedicated to my good friend, Tom Moore, who would have been deeply offended.