'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, September 13, 2010


Before 1969, it was difficult for academics to examine the lives of Spanish leftists. Jerome Minter, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, surrepticiously conducted the interviews of anarchists and others who recalled life in Casas Viejas during the period leading to the 1934 uprising, interviews that subsequently formed the backbone of his intimate 1982 book, The Anarchists of Casas Viejas. As related by Stuart Christie, a number of Spanish anarchists remained in exile in the United Kingdom during the 1960s.

And, then, on March 28, 1969, the fascist government of Francisco Franco finally announced an unconditional amnesty for those who, in its view, had committed crimes during the civil war. Several days later, Manuel Cortes, the socialist mayor of Mijas in 1936 and 1937, emerged from hiding in one of the homes that he had secretly lived in with his family for 30 years. During those years, Mijas had been transformed from a remote agragian village near Malaga into a tourist destination, with numerous homes and farms owned by foreigners. With his assistance, Maria, his resilient, industrious wife, provided for the family, which included a daughter, through a variety of business activities, including egg sales and the weaving of esparto into crafts, such as baskets and cords. Interestingly, it appears that they became one of the wealthiest families Mijas.

British historian Ronald Fraser made contact with the Cortes family and interviewed Manuel, Maria, and their daughter, Juliana, about their experiences. Fraser thereafter published a book based upon these interviews in 1972, In Hiding, a book that has been recently reissued by Verso. It serves as a prologue to Fraser's riveting, multidimensional oral history of the civil war itself, Blood of Spain, published in 1979. Manuel and Maria describe life in Mijas, commencing with the days of their youth, decades before the civil war began, all the way through to his decision to report to the authorities after the announcement of the amnesty. Juliana relates the tension of living in a family where the presence of her father could not be publicly acknowledged. For example, from the age of 4, Maria had emphasized that she would lose her father if she ever mentioned him, and she did something similar with her children after she got married.

Preliminarily, one might wonder, was it necessary for Cortes to conceal himself in the ingenious ways that he devised? During the first few months after his covert return to the village upon the war's conclusion, he resided inside a small, concealed compartment where he could stand, but not move about, while otherwise sitting on a chair facing one way, with his shoulders touching the walls. As he obtained more space and mobility, did he and his family really still have to plan their daily lives with great care to prevent anyone from discovering him? At a subsequent residence, Maria carefully choreographed the remodeling and cleaning of it while Manuel remained in a nearby room.

Without doubt, such measures were necessary in a small village where everyone knew everyone else's business. As Cortes explains, he was one of only two surviving socialist mayors in the region. With the passage of time, he feared the loss of his life less, while becoming more alarmed about the prospect of lengthy incarceration. And, as he states several times, he was not guilty of anything. In fact, he had been a moderating presence that had prevented the killings of numerous property owners and business people in Mijas.

In regard to his life prior to his seclusion, Cortes recounts his political awakening and conflicts with the local landowners and anarchists from a Socialist perspective. His was not a life of theory, but one in which what theory he knew was being perpetually tested by the vagaries of everyday life in a village of landowners, peasant small holders, sharecroppers, herders and campesinos. And, beyond that, by the incremental, yet inexorable, modernist integration of his village into a nation state increasingly interwoven into a global economy. It is here that Cortes' account of his life may have a particular contemporary resonance, perhaps partially explaining why Verso has reissued it.

During the period of the Republic and the Civil War, Cortes was a tireless advocate for unionization and land reform. He told resistant land owners and small holders that, in the absence of a redistribution of the land and the collective organization of the workforce, they were likely to experience much worse, and, in many instances, he was proven correct. If one connects Cortes' memories of the poverty of his early life with the political conflict of the Republic and ensuing civil war with the world as he understood it during his seclusion and subsequent public emergence, one pieces together a mosaic of the modernization of Andalusia that Cortes imperfectly perceived. Even before the Republic, he was well aware that life in Mijas was going to be transformed. For him, the challenge was to persuade the campesinos, herders, sharecroppers and even the small holders that a collective, socialist form of modernization was the most ideal outcome. If his account is taken at face value, which seems reasonable, given his straightforward candor, he was largely successful, until the fascists captured the town upon the outbreak of hostilities.

After the civil war, Mijas was connected, first, to the larger Spanish economy, and then, to Europe, much like the major cities and resource regions of other lesser developed countries were interwoven into their national economies as a precondition to being incorporated into the global one. The construction of a road from Malaga to Mijas enabled the Cortes family to more easily trade in goods in both places, and eventually brought foreign tourists, who, as noted, proceeded to purchase a number of dwellings and farm properties in the 1960s. In words that echo eerily across the decades to present day Spain, as it painfully confronts the bursting of yet another real estate bubble and the collapse of an economy centered around tourism and foreign investment, Cortes ridiculed the notion that Mijas could rely upon importing tourists and exporting workers to secure its future. In effect, Spain was a testing ground for neoliberal development doctrines that would be subsequently applied to Africa, the Americas and much of Asia. Much as Mao put into the place the infrastructure that permitted foreign capital to afterwards penetrate the Chinese economy, it seems that Franco did something very similar while also taking tentative steps to open the Spanish economy to European and American capitalists.

Consistent with this process was the atomization of social life that Cortes recognized. Having lived his early years during a time of intense class conflict, when people invariably organized themselves collectively out of necessity, if not idealism, he was dismayed by the young people he encountered upon coming out of his house: And the first thing that struck me was that they know absolutely nothing about anything except amusing themselves. No wonder he was dismayed, he knew more, despite being shut inside a house, with his access to information limited to newspapers, a radio and a television, than people walking the streets!

Furthermore, note that Cortes said this around 1970, when young people around the world were much more politicized than today. Even taking into account his caveat that his observations did not apply to young people living in cities with universities (with hindsight, we can say, sadly, that they did), he inferentially connected the imposition of an ephmeral economic model in Mijas with an increasingly apolitical, more individualistic social life. In this, he brings to mind Christie, who, because of his working class upbringing and his encounters with exiled Spanish anarchists, maligned the hippie scene that he subsequently encountered in London as grossly self-absorbed and irresponsible. Regardless of how one relates to these generational disputes, Cortes' life is a testament to the fact that it could have been different, and may well be in the future.

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