Libby Purves and the Spanish Civil War

Alan Munton 

Libby Purves, broadcaster and journalist of the lightweight persuasion, goes all serious in recommending among her Christmas books for 2003 a novel about the Spanish Civil War. The Repentant Morning by Chris Paling is, she says, ‘lovingly researched, entirely believable, [and] a tour de force of time travel’. In fact novelist Paling is muddled about the basic politics of Anarchism and Communism. His hero, Kit Renton, is an anarchist who goes to fight in Spain. He is wounded. The woman who loves him, Meredith Kerr, sets out to find him when he goes missing. The following ‘lovingly researched’ conversation takes place about Meredith’s plans:

‘I went to see a man called Pollitt [Meredith says] He’s a Communist. He’s been helping people get out there.’
            ‘I know who he is. How did you find him?’ (p. 154)

It wouldn’t have been difficult to find Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain at the party’s King Street headquarters in London. What is difficult to grasp is why Pollitt should want to help the would-be lover of an anarchist. Communists and anarchists were deeply opposed to each other, in Spain and in general. It was a question of centralisers against decentralists. In real life Pollitt turned down George Orwell in 1936 when that socialist writer wanted to ‘get out there’.

Late in the novel, after Kit returns to London and Meredith is left stranded in Barcelona, Kit is made to say ‘I’ll try Pollitt, though I doubt there’s much he can do from this end’. The politics of this are absurd. Hardheaded and Stalinist, Pollitt wasn’t interested in people’s girlfriends – he wanted the courageous International Brigades to succeed.

Chris Paling, the author, is muddled about the political differences on the Republican side. Kit meets an anarchist journalist on Solidaridad Obrero who explains the Barcelona situation and gets it all wrong:

Renton listened as the man said, ‘You must first recognise that the PSUC and the POUM are fighting a war, whereas our ultimate goal is social revolution….Our revolutionary aspirations, by necessity, must wait until the war is won…’. (p. 79)

It would be better to recognise that the PSUC – the communists in Catalonia – were deeply opposed to the POUM, the non-Marxist anarchist-libertarian group who were close to the anarchists. The POUM and the Anarchists wanted social revolution to continue at the same time as the war was fought. The communists wanted to win the war first and then (allegedly) have the revolution. This explanation by a supposedly well-informed anarchist journalist is both wrong and confused – for the Anarchists expected no delay for their revolutionary aspirations.

All this is clear from Paling’s source, Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and is explained in another, Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War. Thomas quotes Solidaridad Obrera:

[T]he scolding refrain [of the communists] ‘first win the war’ pains us….First win the war and make the revolution at the same time, for the war and the revolution are cosubstantial, like sun and light. (19 December 1936; 3rd edn, p. 525-6.)

This was written after the supposed conversation in The Repentant Morning. The novel is revolution-lite, just right for Christmas, as Libby Purves urges. And it’s carelessly, not ‘lovingly’ researched.

(Libby Purves wrote in The Times of 6 December 1003.)

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