The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge by Paul Preston

January 22, 2016Alvah's Books

513x+lC04HL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge (Revised and Expanded Edition)

By Paul Preston
W. W. Norton and Company, 2007

Reviewed by Randall Radic

In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler wrote:  “With this enters the age of gigantic conflicts, in which we find ourselves today.  It is the transition from Napoleonism to Caesarism….  The Chinese call it Shan-Kwo, the period of the contending states.”  Spengler was not writing about the Spanish Civil War, of course.  His perspective was purely historical and not specific to one event.  Nevertheless, his statement provides an explanation for the Spanish Civil War.

Jesus took the long view, too, when he said, “There will be wars and rumors of wars until I come again.”  Indirectly, his words provide another explanation for the Spanish Civil War.  Something along the lines of “that’s just the way people are.”

Paul Preston, the author of The Spanish Civil War, wanted a more specific answer, so he wrote a book in which he examined the causes and effects of the Spanish Civil War (SCW).  A war, according to Preston, that set the stage for World War II.  In the first chapter of his book, Preston implies that – generally speaking – the SCW was the result of growing pains – “the struggles of a society in the throes of modernization.”  The SCW was “the culmination of a series of uneven struggles between the forces of reform and reaction which had dominated Spanish history since 1808.”

In other words, there were two groups of people in Spain.  Those that wanted to change things and those that wanted things to stay the same.  The reformers wanted to modernize Spain, pushing it out of the past into the 20th century.  Like most people who are afraid of change, the reactionaries liked things the way they were.  And they liked it even more if they got to be in power.  That way they could make sure the status quo was preserved.

In chapter two, Preston begins breaking his general explanation for the SCW down into specific factors.  The reformers, called the Second Republic, were liberals with wonderful ideas that they couldn’t implement effectively.  Their failure caused them to revert to “revolutionary solutions.”  And that’s when everything went to hell in a hand cart.  Preston details the conflict and its aftermath in the succeeding chapters.

Before reading Preston’s book, the reviewer’s knowledge of the SCW was scanty to almost non-existent.  After finishing the book, the reviewer would like to know more, especially about General Franco, who led the Nationalist forces to victory – if one wants to call it that – and set himself up as dictator for life.  The reviewer would also like to read more about the 3000 Americans who took up arms and fought against Franco.  What motivated men whom, for the most part, had no military experience, to take part in the civil war of a foreign country?  Preston merely writes, “the volunteers went to Spain to fight Hitlerism.”  The reviewer suspects there’s more to it.  He also admits that the subject probably commands a separate book, dedicated to the topic.

Preston does a remarkable job in relating the story of the SCW.  His presentation and knowledge of General Franco is stunning.  To the reviewer, it appeared that without Franco the outcome of the civil war might have been different.  For Franco did whatever needed to be done to win.  He was ruthless, driven by an inner energy, which the Republicans could not muster.  Franco’s mantra seemed to be “kill, kill, kill.”  And although a little simplistic, his willingness to kill provided the crucial advantage to the Nationalists.

Previous reviewers have accused Preston of “leftist bias.”  In the book’s preface, Preston himself acknowledges that he has no sympathy for the Nationalists.  He writes, “it is not a book which sets out to find a perfect balance between both sides.”  He then explains that he lived in Spain during Franco’s domination.  In other words, Preston is not writing history from his penthouse suite at the Ivory Tower Hotel.  To this reviewer, that means he knows what he’s talking about, because he actually experienced it.  And that means his book tells what really happened.  Which is called “the truth.”

Truth is a bias only to those who want to believe a lie.

All in all, The Spanish Civil War is essential reading for a better understanding of the dynamics of history as it occurred in Spain just prior to World War II.

Naming Names by Victor Navasky

January 12, 2016Alvah's Books

“Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been . . . ?”



Naming Names

By Victor Navasky

Reviewed by Alvah Bessie
San Francisco Review of Books, January-February 1981

. . . Perhaps they did it because it was the right thing to do. By risking in some cases their careers and in other cases their freedom as well, by doing their time (in prison and in career-purgatory), they have emerged in the culture as moral exemplars; they have taught us how to act, and as a result appear to have made it more difficult to happen again . . . ”

Victor Navasky’s tribute here to Lillian Hellman, Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz “and their comrades (who) resisted” the assault on the entertainment industry in 1947-1952 by the defunct House Committee on Un-American Activities, is slightly fudged by what preceeds it in the same paragraph” “Perhaps they behaved as they did out of status-anxiety. Perhaps they were salivating in response to the bell of Party discipline. Perhaps they did it for the rest of us . . . ” etc.

Despite this sort of snide humor (if that is what it is) Navasky’s examination in depth of the informers who appeared before HUAC joins the recent book by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood, to form a body of work that examines The Cold War in Hollywood in such a way that the job will probably not have to be done again.

Where Ceplair and Englund recreated the history and development of the various American drives toward conformity, from the earliest witch-hunts following World War I through the Depression and World War II, down to the imprisonment in 1950 of The Hollywood 10 and the emergence of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Navasky, the new editor of The Nation, has concentrated less on those who resisted the inquisition than on the relatively few “friendly” witnesses who sent their colleagues into ostracism, blacklist, divorce, alcoholism, prison, and ultimately death.

While Ceplair and Englund are both trained in the disciplines of the historian, Navasky is not only a solid investigative reporter (who makes occasional small errors of fact), but is also a graduate attorney and something of a philosopher and metaphysician.

He has created here what he calls a “moral detective story” to solve the mystery: “How did it come to pass that scores of otherwise decent individuals were compelled to betray a moral presumption? What are the conditions under which good men do things they know to be wrong? What are the consequences of betrayal and collaboration?” His answers fill the 482 pages of this heavily researched and often brilliant book.

What made the stools and betrayers do their dirty work? Navasky divides their rationales into four general headings:

  •  “I didn’t hurt anybody.” I.e., the names I gave had all been named before;
  •  “They deserved what they got.” That is, they were enemies of our country;
  • “I wasn’t responsible for my actions. ” I.e., I was out of my skull with worry about my health, my job, my wife and kids;
  • “I was acting in obedience to a higher authority.” My country, right or wrong.

Perhaps the most contemptible informer of our time, Whittaker Chambers (you may prefer to give the accolade to Elia Kazan or even to Clifford Odets, who managed to put the finger on his dead friend, the actor J. Edward Bromberg), told a friend one time, “You know that the day I walk out of the Communist Party, I walk into the police station.”

This was a valid insight into the mentality of the stool-pigeon but with most of the Hollywood informers, there was a time-lapse: their “patriotism” waited upon the service of a subpoena from the House Committee; then they sang. And Navasky’s penetrating examination of their “reasons” for their behavior destroys each and every one of their arguments.

“The case for distinguishing among motives (for betrayal),” he says, “seems both compelling and appropriately compassionate. And yet it cannot be forgotten that for each informer there were two resisters, some in virtually identical circumstances, who refused to go along.” (There were far more than two. — A.B.)

“But the example of the Hollywood Ten,” the author continues, “of (Sidney) Buchman, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Pete Seeger and others are there to be reckoned with. There is no evidence that the informers as a class were subjected to greater pressure — by the state, vigilantes, or personal problems — than the resisters. . . ”

In fact, the pressure on the informers to name names, Navasky demonstrates, had no evidentiary purpose whatsoever. It was, however, an integral part of what he calls a “degradation ceremony” that established —for the witch-hunters and presumably the American public — the bona fides (or should we say the bad faith) of the stools.

His proof: the first 10 men to be blacklisted had not been named by any of the informers; their names were supplied to HUAC by the FBI and the House Committee announced they would be “unfriendly witnesses” months before a single question was propounded to them.

On the tortured trail Navasky must follow to explain and understand the contemptible human beings he is dealing with, he sometimes becomes the victim of his own virtues. For example: trained in the law, he permits himself to be thrown by the legal device The 10 utilized in 1947, at their lawyers’ instance, that they were not refusing to answer the Committee’s questions, but were trying to answer them in their own way. He calls that fudging.

Outright refusal guaranteed a peremptory demand for an answer and further refusal meant an automatic citation for contempt. But witness after witness stated this in his own way: “I am trying to tell you that I do not believe you have the right to ask that question;” “. . . either the Bill of Rights means what it says, or it does not. . . “; “The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making any law respecting belief, association or the right to speak or write freely; it is therefore obvious that you cannot investigate in those areas. . . ”

As an attorney, the author should have recognized the simple fact that The 10 intended to make an outright attack on the constitutionality of the HUAC and hoped thereby to put it out of business. Not wishing to invoke the Fifth Amendment, which had invidious connotations in the public mind that are not written into the Amendment at all, they relied on the First (which had been upheld by the Supreme Court as recently as 1943 in West Virginia Board of Education vs Barnette). The courts’ refusal to accept that as an argument or an issue ultimately affirmed their conviction for “contempt.”

Again, Navasky comes to close for comfort to the disgusting position set forth by Eric Bentley (Thirty Years of Treason), who, he says, “joined the issue most directly.” In effect, Bentley had said that: a. the Committee was contemptible, but so were those who refused to answer its questions; they deserved each other; b. any “radical” — and he stated that he was a radical, himself — should be proud to stand up and say what he believed in and if you don’t like it, Go fuck yourself.

How The 10 yearned to do just that! (Just like Woody Allen in the penultimate scene of The Front). But: 1. that was not the issue; the issue was the right of any governmental agency to ask any American any question about his associations or beliefs under penalty of ostracism, unemployment, and worse if he did not give the answer it required. And: 2. If you say, “Yes I am and what the hell business is it of yours?” the next question will be, “What about your friend Victor Navasky? Is he a member too? And if you say, “I never asked him,” they will produce a friendly witness who will swear “Of course he knows; we were all in the same ‘cell’ together.”

For granting HUAC the right to ask the question — and answering it — you were open, not to a misdemeanor called “Contempt of Congress” (one month to one year in a common jail and $100 to $1000 in fines), but you were charged with a felony — perjury (because the stool’s word is as good as yours), which brings a minimum of five years and who knows how many thousands of dollars.

But again, that was not the issue and never has been. The moralist-philosopher in Navasky feels real compassion both for the victims and the informers who made them pariahs in our society for as long as 20 years. Some of these stools had the gall to weep on Navasky’s shoulder because they were not understood by their fellow men and women, and Navasky sometimes gets bogged down in semantic arguments about candor, responsibility, vengeance and forgiveness.

“Why semantic? Because Dalton Trumbo was dead wrong when he made the cockeyed formulation — on receiving the highest award his fellow screenwriters can confer on their peers — that in that Time of the Toad (his own felicitous phrase) there were no “villains or heros or saints or devils. . . there were only victims.”

There were plenty of heros (and Dalton was one of them) and plenty of villains and there still are. Because the purpose of the “degradation ceremony” (and the resisters were degraded by HUAC and its allies far more than any stool), was to establish in the public mind that there actually existed an international conspiracy, activated by the “Godless Communism” of the USSR, to subvert, not merely the motion picture industry, but our government and our nation itself. Navasky knows this well and states it candidly.

The existence of such a conspiracy, of course, was the rationale used by Mussolini, Hitler, Tojo and Franco to save Italy, Germany, Japan and Spain from communism — and by all the Axis powers in concert, to save the entire world, and they nearly did.

The fact that there never was such a conspiracy goes no way at all to prevent its non-existence being used again in an American crusade to save us all over again — and any other country that shows signs of moving out of the orbit of American imperialism and the multi-national corporations that control it.

This fact, of course, is the link between the stunning Ceplair-Englund-Navasky examination of Cold War America in Hollywood, and the way the world could go today, if we do not exercise the eternal vigilance that is the guarantee of our liberty.

For it is scarcely an accident that one of the friendly witnesses before HUAC in 1947 was a man who hailed its victory (1n 1951) in these words:

“For many years the Red propagandists and conspirators concentrated their big guns on Hollywood. They threatened to throw acid in the faces of myself and some other stars, so we would never appear on screen again. I packed a gun for some time. Policemen lived at my home to guard my kids. But that was more than five years ago. Those days are gone forever.”

Here is the same man, interviewed in the Los Angeles Times on 6 March, 1980:

“. . . But the reason for the godlessness with regard to communism — here is a direct teaching of the child from the beginning of its life that it is a human being whose only importance is its contribution to the state. . . and that there is no God, they are just an accident of nature. . . The result is, this is why they have no respect for human life. . . And I remember one night, a long time ago, in a rally in Los Angeles, 16,000 people in the auditorium, and this was at the time when the local Communists. . . and this is all well-documented — was actually trying, had secured domination of several unions in the picture business, and was trying to take over the motion picture industry. . . believe me, the persecutors were the Communists who had gotten into positions where they could destroy careers, and did destroy them. There was no blacklist of Hollywood. The blacklist in Hollywood, if there was one, was provided by the Communists. . . ”

Please pay no attention to the man’s splendid command of the English language, his grammar, syntax and felicitous prose. Or to the fact that every statement in that paragraph is a blatant lie. What is important is that the international conspiracy of Godless Communism is still the bedrock of his Weltpolitikik and his “vision” of a new America.

In 1947 he was merely the president of the Screen Actors’ Guild. Barring some accident before 20 January of this coming year, he will be the President of the United States of America.

Marx was correct when he chided Hegel for saying that history repeated itself, but did not also add: “The first time as tragedy. . . the second as farce.” (Or should it be the other way around?)

Review: Polanski: A Biography by Christopher Sandford

December 26, 2015Alvah's Books

PolanskiIn light of Mr. Polanski’s recent legal proceedings in Poland, I thought I would run this review I wrote a few years ago.
Polanski: A Biography
by Christopher Sandford
387 pages
Palgrave Macmillan

In a small and informal poll, I asked a group of writers to play a game of word association when they heard the name Roman Polanski. Although a few complimentary words were mentioned, the majority were linked, not surprisingly, to the two terrible and ugly events that occurred in Los Angeles so long ago. For many people, Polanski is the devil, no matter what they’ll find in Polanski: A Biography by Christopher Sandford, an honest and balanced account of the controversial filmmaker’s triumphs and tragedies.

There is no doubt that Polanski’s life is sometimes stranger than fiction, but readers who want the prurient details of Polanski’s tragedies or salacious gossip about his sexual peccadilloes will be disappointed that Sandford doesn’t deliver those goods.

Polanski opens at an early turning point in the filmmaker’s career: his departure from Poland to live and work in the West, specifically Paris. As he crossed the Polish border, he brought with him a print of his full-feature film, Knife in the Water, which had received mixed reviews in his native Poland—the state party Secretary Wladyslaw Gomulka vividly expressed his reaction to the film by flinging an ashtray at the screen.

Whatever the Poles’ response, it really wouldn’t matter. Thanks to a small import company, Kanawha, which bought the American distribution rights for the film. Knife in the Water enjoyed a cult status in art clubs and on university campuses across the United States. But what eventually catapulted the film and Polanski to fame was its entry, by Kanawha, in the first New York Film Festival in 1963, and after a photo still of the film appeared on the cover of Time magazine. In an interview with Polanski, a New York Post writer said: “it [is] entirely possible that Polanski will be an unnaturally brilliant boy for the next thirty years until suddenly he will be decrepit. Meanwhile, what a life!”

The beauty of Polanski is it can be read out of sequence. For those who have had enough of the rehashing of the murders and the statutory rape case, these chapters can be set aside without missing a beat.

Film buffs will most likely be interested in the stories behind the camera, Polanski’s attention to detail, his obsessively numerous retakes (“Fandastic, fandastic! We go again.”), and his expertise in technical matters and overall capabilities about filmmaking. As noted by the cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, the cameraman on Sergio Leone’s The Good, Bad, and the Ugly, who also worked on Polanski’s productions of Bitter Moon and Death and the Maiden:

Polanski was absolutely the best technical director I’d known in fifty years in the job, including those old masters Malle and Fellini. They were good, but Roman was better. [Polanski] knew as much about cameras and lenses, which he could identify at a glance, as I did, and I frequently had the impression that he could have easily made the film with just himself, the three actors and maybe a wardrobe assistant.

This impression by Delli Colli is not off-base. Sandford writes that the perfectionist Polanski, when he was a student at the National Film School at Lodz, “… proved himself to be a gifted and industrious student, who came top of his year in photography exams, and second and third, respectively, in editing and sound.”

There are those who will argue that both Polanski’s achievements and tragedies are inseparable, some naming as an example the director’s version of Macbeth—his first film after Sharon Tate’s death. Sandford cites several American reviewers who make that same connection to the very violent film and Manson. However, as the author notes, the British critics reviewed the film on its own merits and not as a cathartic exercise by the director. Even Polanski observed, “When you tell the story of a guy who’s beheaded, you have to show how they cut off his head. If you don’t, it’s like telling a dirty joke and leaving out the punchline.”

There always will be unfortunate correlations between his films and the two events. Even Roy Jenson, the character actor in Chinatown, who acted opposite Polanski in his cameo commented, “Roman did it explicitly because of Sharon Tate. He wouldn’t let another actor handle a shiv if he could help it. No one else was ever going to play that part.” How true is that? Only Polanski knows. However, there is an interesting aside, which Sandford notes, in the closing credits of the film: Polanski’s role is listed as The Man with a Knife a possible wink to the audience alluding to his first film? Again, only Polanski knows.

Sandford relies on many of these tidbits from more than 200 interviews with actors, writers, and other Polanski collaborators, as well as previously sealed court documents and magazine and broadcast interviews that the understandably media-shy director has granted over the years. And just as in the informal poll taken for this review, Sandford also discovered through these conversations the contrasting opinions people have of the director. Some think of him as “our greatest living director, but almost a saint regarding his personal experience; while certain others take a notably different line, favoring words like ‘evil’ and ‘bastard’ among the even more colorful epithets.”

Polanski is not a deep psychological study of the director—that should be left to the psychoanalysts—but it does provide readers with a very comprehensive and fascinating account of a talented yet flawed man who can charm his audience as well as repel them.