The last fight let us face: communist discourse in britain and the spanish civil war
Author(s)Lopes, António Manuel Bernardo
KeywordsCommunist party of Great Britain
Spanish civil war
Full recordShow full item record
AbstractTese dout., English Culture, Faculdade de Ciências Humanas e Sociais da Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 2006
I sought to analyse the ways in which, within the context of the tensions and antagonisms that characterised British democracy in the interwar period, Communist discourse evolved from 1920 onwards and how it succeeded, thanks to the People’s Front line, in overcoming some of the resistance it had met in its earlier stages. After years of insistence on the centrality of the working class in the revolutionary process, by the mid-thirties the discourse of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) began seeking to expand the number of possible articulations so as to construct a new political identity—the ‘people’—encompassing groups or classes that had hitherto been excluded from the political equations of the Communist leadership. Since its inception, the party attempted to retain its strictly proletarian character. But now the new hegemonic tasks that the People’s Front entailed were incompatible with the notion of one single natural class agent or of one single class identity. The party had to learn how to reach out to more subject positions (the intellectuals, the petty bourgeoisie, etc.) and had to do so by means of establishing an equivalential chain (usually under the guise of ‘all democratic forces’) whose cohesion was believed to be guaranteed by the existence of an antagonistic frontier separating the ‘democratic’ camp from the ‘Fascist’ one. In the course of the construction of such a broad identity, Spain soon became one of the nodal points that permitted the consolidation of this equivalential chain.
In this study I also tried to demonstrate that discourse is to be regarded neither as a flat surface of tightly knit signifiers nor as an impenetrable monolith of meaning systems. It is, above all, an inherently dynamic phenomenon, with its own condensations and dispersions along the historical continuum. Yet this does not mean that discourse is wholly inconstant. Actually, although it can grow to accommodate further signifiers and to cover a larger variety of practices by different subject positions in the context of a hegemonic project, it neither loses its internal stability nor dissolves into nothingness. It has its own mechanisms of self regulation and compensation, and therefore keeps tending towards equilibrium. I tried to show how signifiers were passed down the chain of command, all the way from Comintern officials in Moscow to the International Brigaders on the front, and how they were negotiated at the level of the different practices, demands and interests—which varied from one subject position to the next—without substantial entropic losses. But this did not operate in one direction only. I also sought to demonstrate how discursive practices at the local branches of the CPGB and on the Spanish battlefields had a determining effect on the definition of the discursive strategies of the party’s hegemonic project. Despite significant differences in context and variations in the constitution of the identity of each individual involved, communist discourse retained a remarkable degree of consistency, which also accounts for the vitality and cohesion of the party in this difficult period in the history of Europe. This is not to say that it was devoid of contradictions or lacunae (think of, for example, the party’s positions towards parliamentarism, the Labour Party, the issues of nationhood and the problem of war). Although it is usually defined as a relational totality that establishes the parameters of each meaningful action (both linguistic and non linguistic), discourse is in fact characterised by a structural incompleteness which derives, on the one hand, from the dislocations the social is continuously being subjected to and, on the other, from the very impossibility of encompassing the infinite play of differences. The discourse of the CPGB sought to suture those lacks by investing, from the outset, in a closed symbolic order, but the minute it started to make concessions in order to dilate its political space, older systems of meanings had to be discarded (the theory of Social Fascism, for example), that closure (the dictatorship of the proletariat) deferred sine die, and a new set of signifiers adopted—which also led to a whole series of new practices. The People’s Front represented such a challenge and the war in Spain constituted the ground where that challenge would be met.