Public Comment

A Few More Thoughts on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

By Lawrence Jarach
Wednesday December 17, 2008 - 06:59:00 PM

Don Santina is apparently incapable of discerning between disputing the lopsided writing of history and “historical revisionism.” Neither can he acknowledge that criticizing Communist Party politics do not make the critic a “McCarthyite.” Historical revisionism, in the lexicon of neutral historians, denotes questioning the dominant interpretation of past events. I would be honored to accept the label if Santina were using it descriptively instead of as an insulting conversation-stopper. The main Revisionist issue is Holocaust Denial, a predominately right-wing position, and Santina’s clear intent is to paint me with that brush, along with the other right-wing phenomenon he mentions: paranoid American anti-Communism. As an anarchist, my distrust of Leninists and Stalinists is directly tied to the often homicidal interactions (initiated by them) between the partisans of our respective movements, and has absolutely nothing to do with the frenzied Cold War hunt for secret Communist sympathizers and agents. I have no connection to Rush Limbaugh either—another of Santina’s absurd attempt at guilt-by-association, made in conscious bad faith.  

Santina claims that I’m being silly for alleging that he asked for special care for Ted Veltfort at Kaiser, yet that’s exactly what he wrote: “I told the doctor to take special care of him…” If all Santina wanted to do was alert his doctor to Veltfort’s remarkable past, he could have done so in the course of a conversation not related to his medical care. 

The Lincolns were one of six battalions that made up the XVth International Brigade. Magically multiplying the number of Americans who fought in the IBs was a deliberate distortion. No contortions are necessary to correct that, just a commitment to honesty over slick public relations. Contrary to what Santina says, numbers are not silly. 

None of the Lincolns (or any other brigadista) ever entered into any agreement concerning their lengths of service in the IBs. Yet if any of them left the front without a pass or overstayed their leaves, they were rounded up as deserters and either returned to the front in labor battalions (not brigades this time!), incarcerated in one of several IB prisons, and/or summarily executed. That’s hardly a voluntary situation, at least not in my understanding of the word. Maybe Santina thinks words are as unimportant as numbers. 

I paid Milt Wolff an inadvertent compliment by calling him a commissar, since they outranked all military officers in operational matters within the IBs. I stand corrected on that one detail, an admittedly important distinction. 

The sad case of Oliver Law’s death is, contrary to Santina, not conclusive. Some insist he was killed by Nationalist bullets; others say he was shot by one of his own men. The fictionalized version has the character based on Law beaten to death. Regardless, how sworn statements of eyewitnesses could be transformed into an “outright lie,” or how my bringing it up becomes a “racist canard” is not explained.  

Most of the early Lincolns, staunch Communist union men, were accustomed to forming grievance committees on the job, and they continued to do so at IB bases and in the trenches. Their complaints against what they considered unfair treatment from officers and commissars was what made them politically unreliable, not their implied independence from Stalinism in general and/or the orders of their Comintern commanders in particular. Nowhere did I mention or imply that the Lincolns were “Stalinist dupes,” another example of Santina’s bad faith. 

Those who fought with the IBs undoubtedly thought of themselves as fighters for freedom and justice; nobody who fights for a cause believes they’re fighting to impose slavery and discrimination—at least not upon those they consider allies. But what anyone thinks about what they do has little to do with the actual social consequences of their actions. Those who fought to defend the Spanish Republic by enlisting in an army organized and controlled by the Comintern were implicitly—and in some cases explicitly—fighting against what Santina refers to as “the heroic revolutionary achievements of the Anarchist collectives.” In revolutionary Spain beginning in July 1936, the choice was between promoting and extending that revolution or propping up the Popular Front government; those who chose the latter helped to bury the former, whether or not they thought that was what they were doing.  

Santina attempts to forestall any possibility that readers will look further into the history of revolutionary Spain by discrediting my analyses, putting me in league with right-wing anti-Communists, racists, and possibly Holocaust deniers. Such clumsy straw man caricatures and obviously false associations are beneath contempt, but plenty of lies have been told about anarchists throughout history. I and others, however, shall continue to defend ourselves and our political predecessors against such contemporary defamation and calumny, turning a critical eye toward self-serving propaganda and historical distortions, regardless of the uncomfortable conclusions.  


Lawrence Jarach is a Berkeley resident.