Monday, February 02, 2009

For Whom The Bell Tolls

Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls is a great work of literature, an insightful journey into the minds and hearts of Spanish guerillas held out in the mountains fighting the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. A story detailing the horrors of war, the effects of said horrors upon the minds and psyches of the victims and the aggressors. A story of the excesses of war and violence like no other I have read before.

Unfortunately, the book in many places repeats Stalinist propaganda. Unknown to those who have not studied the Spanish Civil War is the fact that Stalin’s “Popular Front” played a large role in the Spanish Republic, communists having joined the Republic in defense against the fascists and in offense against the Trotskyists, anarchists and workers and peasants who, in the face of the failure of the Republican government, organized cities and farm land under shop committees, collectives and community centers.

Ernest Hemingway unfortunately appears to defend in the book the murder in cold blood of such Trotskyists and anarchists – who were imprisoned, placed in labor camps, tortured and murdered (it was these murderous purges that motivated George Orwell to write Animal Farm ) – as well as providing the counterrevolutionary Stalinist caricature of them as wild, undisciplined, beasts of men who need to be murdered.
However, fortunately, these severe drawbacks of the book are few, there is positive mention of the great anarchist leader Durruti and the greatness of the other aspects of the book overwhelm the vulgarity of the Stalinist propaganda. Possibly and most likely Hemingway was simply mislead and honesty believed in these things.

The love story, between Robert Jordan and Maria, although at times very sexist in nature (surely an accurate representation of sex roles at the time) shows how the light of humanity can shine through even the most horrific events and the darkness of war. Hemingway’s romantic depiction of the “good” Spanish and of Spanish ways of talking, thinking and of their customs is insightful and brilliant and his depiction of their camaraderie, fraternity and solidarity is fantastic, as is his depiction of their ideals (as ill conceived as the unfortunate drawbacks were) and how they motivate a religious-like righteousness that is able to overcome the most difficult and horrific obstacles. It’s difficult to put into words the brilliance of these aspects.

All in all a great work of literature, a giant, that stands the test of time; worthy of being read by all, though surely with the qualifications cited in mind and in conjunction with, say, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.


capecodkwassa said...

Awesome post, JDHURF. For Whom the Bell Tolls and Homage to Catalonia kept coming up in reviews of Pan's Labyrinth last year. That's the only reason I read Catalonia.

I think Catalonia is better in terms of content and ideas, but I prefer Hemingway to Orwell as a writer. He makes prose read like poetry.

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Renegade Eye said...

I had a post about the Spanish Civil War that had with it a good discussion.

I read Hemingways, The Sun Also Rises. That book is amazingly boring and anisemitic. I didn't read For Whom yet.

I love the Orwell book. I must plug Land and Freedom, the Ken Loach movie based on Orwell's book.

POUM was centrist, not Trotskyist. It was too free thinking for the Stalinists.

JDHURF said...


There’s no question that politically Orwell far surpasses Hemingway, there is quite simply no comparison; but I do agree that Hemingway’s prose is more eloquent - at times indeed poetic, I can recall several vivid passages off the top of my head - than Orwell’s.

It only makes sense for people to mention both works in reviews of Pan’s Pabyrinth, which tangentially depicted the anti-fascist guerrilla resistance. I would be interested to see in what context they were cited and how they were used as citations.

JDHURF said...


I’ll be checking out your Spanish Civil War post soon.

Haven’t read The Sun Also Rises, but I look forward to checking out the Ken Loach film, as I will sooner or later.

POUM was formed by Trotskyists, Andreu Nin being the most prominent, and was decidedly a Trotskyist organization influenced by Trotsky’s conception of permanent revolution and so forth. I agree that Nin himself was something more of a centrist, I recall reading correspondence between Nin and Trotsky where Nin put himself at variance with Trotsky, but Trotsky respected Nin enough to, when he died, write very highly of him and there’s no dispute that Trotskyism was the greatest influence within POUM, differences and all.

Renegade Eye said...

I agree generally with what you are saying about POUM.

The youth of the Socialist Party approached POUM about becoming Marxists. They turned them away, saying they stopped the German Revolution. They then went to the CP who recruited them, and they became strong enough to destroy POUM.

You should listen to JP on the video at my post. His grandfather was in the Spanish Civil War. In the comments I talk about WWII from a Trotskyist view.

Renegade Eye said...

See this.

JDHURF said...

I absolutely plan to review the video when I have the free time; it certainly looks interesting. I have done a considerable amount of personal research into the history and I tend to find that the Trotskyist position is the closest to the truth outside of the anarchist and syndicalist histories. However, as always, the Trotskyist history is burdened with sectarian and dogmatic convictions and revisionism that must be qualified and corrected.
The most obvious example here is the crazed conviction that were only there to have been a vanguard of Trotskyists, dominated by an anti-democratic central committee as always, to lead the revolutionary masses the revolution would have been successful; apparently the overwhelming combined forces of international fascism, Stalinism and Western “democracy” is neither here nor there, a proposition scarcely worthy of discussion.

LeftyHenry said...

ive always wanted to read it but never had a chance. Its hard to know exactly what happened in Spain during the civil war as the official mainstream account comes after 40 years of fascist reign in Spain where the regime did its best to distort the real story to its favor. I take the claims of stalinists being completely responsible with a grain of sand. There was probabloy hostilities on both sides, its a problem the left creates for itself especially revolutionaries

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