Nationalism and Culture is a detailed and scholarly study of the development of nationalism and the changes in human cultures from the dawn of history to the present day and an analysis of the relations of these to one another. It tells the story of the growth of the State and the other institutions of authority and their influence on life and manners, on architecture and art, on literature and thought. Nationalism and Culture is, primarily, a 600-page (appx 713pp on Kindle/Kobo) exploration of the origins and development of nationalism, and a scathing denunciation of the corrosive effect of national feeling on the human spirit. Yet it is one of those works, like The Anatomy of Melancholy (Robert Burton, 1621), that springboard from their stated purpose to discourse on everything under the sun. Architecture is analyzed, socialism is defended, and Rembrandt’s paintings are scrutinized at length. It is at once a treatise on the state’s relationship with culture and a manifesto for an enlightened leftism. Most of all, it is a clear-eyed plea for sanity at a moment when nationalist and religious irrationalism threatened to swallow the globe. It could not be more relevant. Rocker’s thesis is straightforward: Nations are the products of states, rather than vice versa. They are manufactured to serve the goals of the powerful, to divide human beings and keep them from recognizing their common interests. Rocker argues this point with a litany of historical examples, from the Renaissance to “the stupid and stumbling provisions of the Versailles treaty.”
BARRICADES IN BARCELONA focuses on Barcelona in 1936-1937; it provides an account of the street battles and victory of July 1936, examines the defence and neighborhood committees that defeated the uprising in the city, and addresses the arbitrary decision of the CNT-FAI superior committees to collaborate with counterrevolutionary parties and social groups to preserve anti-fascist unity at any price, and how this decision culminated, in May 1937, in the defeat of the revolution. It also focuses on the emerging discontent among the anarchosyndicalist rank and file and the role of The Friends of Durruti Group in crystallizing opposition to official CNT policies.
A forensically critical and scholarly assessment of the most important utopian writings from Plato’s ‘Republic’ to Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. What is ‘utopian’? Is it the desire for a ‘just’, equitable and cooperative society free of moral and physical compulsion, or the economists’, politicians’, planners’ and ideologues’ vision of a regimented, mechanically-functioning society with their schemes for social improvement in which all society’s conflicts are reconciled or contained? Marx’s theory of history, for example, predicts an end to history in which all social contradictions will be permanently resolved.
In her account of Utopias, Marie Louise Berneri emphasises the intolerant and authoritarian nature of most of these visions; the exceptions, such as those of Morris, Diderot and Foigny, being only a very slight minority. She points to the fact that, although the Marxists have always claimed to be “scientific” as opposed to Utopian socialists, their actual social experiments have in practice taken on the generally rigid structure and even many of the individual institutional features of the classic Utopias. Visions of an ideal future, where every action, as in Cabet’s or Bellamy’s schemes, is carefully regulated and fitted into a model state, are no longer popular, and it is impossible to consider such a book today achieving the fame which was enjoyed by Bellamy’s Looking Backward in the late nineteenth century. It is significant that not only are those writers who are conscious of present-day social evils writing anti-Utopias to warn people of the dangers of going further in the direction of a regimented life, but these very books have the same kind of popularity which the smug visions of a socialist paradise enjoyed before 1914.
Written during the Spanish Civil War, published in 1943, revised in 1950 and republished in paperback in1960, The Spanish Labyrinth assesses the social and political background of the war, not the war itself. Brenan a middle-class, liberal, Anglo-Irish expatriate who lived in Spain from 1919 until 1936, returning in 1953 — wrote comprehensively about the political and religious divisions in Spain from the 16th to the 20th centuries: the church, the tensions with Liberalism, the ‘patria chica’ and the main autonomous regions, Carlism, industrialisation, the agrarian question, communal life, the Republic, the Constituent Cortes, class struggle, etc. — not forgetting the important role of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism in Spanish politics. And although his attitude to the Spanish anarchist–anarcho-syndicalist movement and working class in general is patronising and condescending, it is to an extent understandable given his middle-class upbringing, prejudices and friendship circles.
Brenan swallowed, uncritically, contemporary hysterical, calumnious and propagandistic accounts of ‘irresponsible’, ‘ruthless’ and ‘typical’ acts of mass terrorism allegedly ‘carried out by the Durruti column in Aragón, and by the militia in Madrid on their way to the front’. Describing them as ‘the counterpart of the September Massacres of 1792’, he goes on to compare Durruti to the fanatical ultra-Catholic Carlist general Ramón Cabrera, and refers to the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) as a ‘secret society’, which it most definitely was not (see my We, the Anarchists. A Study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927—1937). He also states as fact (and without adducing any evidence) that the advent of the FAI brought with it an increasingly noticeable trend in Spanish anarchism: ‘the inclusion within its ranks of professional criminals — thieves and gunmen who certainly would not have been accepted by any other working class party — together with idealists of the purest and most selfless kind.’
In spite of Brenan’s shortcomings as an historian and his ambivalence toward the Spanish anarchist movement, as a personal insight The Spanish Labyrinth remains a highly readable, comprehensive and valuable account of social and political life in Spain in the years leading up to the Civil War.
REVIEW OF THE SPANISH LABYRINTH BY MARIE LOUISE BERNERI, an editor of War Commentary and later Freedom, until her death at the age of 31 in 1949. She was the author of Journey Through Utopia(Routledge) and Neither East Nor West(Freedom Press). Her article was originally written for Now! in 1944 as a review of the original edition of Brenan’s book:
A short history summarising the transformation of Barcelona’s CNT Defence Committees during the 1930s from their origins as street fighting units to their reorganisation as integrated combat/ intelligence formations, to their suppression by the Republic after the working class defeat of May 1937. The defence cadres were formed shortly after the proclamation of the Republic, and were a continuation of the armed defence groups of the years of ‘pistolerismo’.