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Review :: Politics
"Professional Revolutionary: The Life of Saul Wellman:" a dissenting view
by Peter Werbe
Email: calltalkyes (nospam) yahoo.com
18 May 2005
"Professional Revolutionary: The Life of Saul Wellman:" a dissenting view by Peter Werbe
If hagiographythe - lives of the saints - is the most banal form of
literature, why shouldn't we judge cinematic efforts similarly? If all
there was to the film, "Professional Revolutionary: The Life of Saul
Wellman," scheduled for its premier soon in Detroit, was solely a feel-good
video for the faithful, probably no more than a slight grimace would be in
order. However, the attempt to create a leftwing superman mythology around
a man who embodied the most authoritarian politics of his era begs to be
Wellman, like many other people of his generation experienced the
Depression, war, revolution, an intense engagement in left politics. But to
extract an individual from the social context in which he operated and to
neglect the consequences of the politics he promoted tells barely half the
story. Maybe the internecine debates of the left are long over and the word
"communist" no longer carries with it the meaning it once did, but the
Stalinist movement of that day, which Wellman embodied, bares heavy
responsibility for the catastrophic losses of the 1930s and '40s, and a
burden the Left carries into the 21st century.
Wellman was not just an average Communist Party hack, but a middle-level
party functionary that, here and abroad, enforced the opportunistic twists
and turns of Stalin's ever-changing party line. To be an uncritical
supporter of Stalin and the Soviet Union then meant keeping on one's
ideological blinders. Information was available to all that Russia was a
totalitarian police state run by one-man rule which ruthlessly suppressed
all internal opposition real, and in the psychotic mind of Stalin,
imagined. Everything about the Soviet Union from its planned mass
starvations, its gulag system, its police state with its exquisite
tortures, its purges, its show trials, its pact with Hitler, its lack of
workers' democracy, was known to anyone willing to look at what was
presented by liberals, Trotskyists, or anarchists. Wellman was one of what
Chomsky calls today in a different context, the "willfully ignorant." At
that time, critics of the Soviet Union were denounced as
"counter-revolutionaries," and "agents of fascism and the Mikado." Often
this translated into a death sentence for the so-labeled, not only in
Russia, but in other countries as well.
When Stalin exported his counter-revolution to Spain, Wellman was there to
do the Third International's dirty work supporting the bourgeois Republic
rather than the revolutionary forces of the anarchists and socialists whose
labor organizations totaled almost two million compared to the Spanish
Communist Partys meager 20,000, and which had created a profound
revolutionary change in the country. The mythology surrounding the
International Brigades, in which Wellman was a commissar (one who assures
adherence to the party line on the battlefield), in reality is overshadowed
by the arrival of Stalins dreaded NKVD which set up its own prisons and
CP policy resulted in the loss of the Spanish Civil War and the destruction
of the revolution; that fascist victory assured the start of the Second
World War and all that it brought with it. Had the Stalinists not attacked
the workers' revolutionary gains, a victory over Franco was within reach.
When the Spanish dictator died in 1977, there was a party in Detroit at the
house of a former Fifth Estate staff member which Wellman attended. When
several of us who had read Chomsky, Bookchin, and Pierats on the subject of
the CP's treacherous role in Spain brought up our criticisms to Wellman,
the real nice guy exploded, not with angry rebuttals, but rather with
statements that will forever brand him in many of our minds.
"I killed more anarchists and Trotskyists in Spain than fascists," he
shouted at us, red-faced and unashamed of his admission. When we continued,
he pointed at me and said, "We killed you in Spain." Words of a Stalinist
executioner, not a "Professional Revolutionary." * In the trailer to the
film available on the web site, Wellman admits, "We didn't know our ass
from our elbows when we arrived in Spain," but this didn't stop him from
carrying out Stalin's dictates and being another counter-revolutionary
force along side the fascists that destroyed the accomplishments of a
radical working class.
The film's endless, giddy endorsements of Wellman by a host of barely
reconstructed ex-CPers and New Leftists who gained his favor by fawning
over his experiences refer to the commissar as their "mentor." What was his
advice to them? Kill your political opponents? Spread vicious calumny about
them? Never think independently, but faithfully follow a party line no
matter how much it confounds reality? Organize like he did on an
opportunistic, manipulative and duplicitous basis? Did these film makers
read any critical histories of the role of the CP in the labor, anti-racist
and peace movements of the time?
The Wellmans of the world have greatly retarded the cause of revolution,
not advanced it. Their allegiance to a police state and authoritarian
politics have made what was to be capitalism's negation into something
understandable reviled and feared by the workers of the world. A better
title for the film would have been "Professional Counter-Revolutionary."
For anyone surprised at the harshness of my tone, it is because I know what
was destroyed in Spain and a dozen other attempts at authentic revolution
by the Wellmans of the world. I suspect for even writing this, there will
be some who will react as those of Wellman's generations did to critics of
the party (when they weren't assassinated): attempt at social ostracism. To
those whom my opinions anger enough to do that, it's no great loss.
However, to the many of you open to serious political investigation and to
the acceptance of its consequences, I have an invitation. Detroit's Black &
Red has reprinted a chapter from Noam Chomsky's "American Power and the New
Mandarins" (1969) as a small book to which I wrote the introduction. It is
a short, concise history of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War with
emphasis on the crimes of the Stalinists in accelerating the failure of
both. It is available for $6 through me [see below]. Also, if you haven't
seen the 40th anniversary edition of the "Fifth Estate" newspaper, I'll
throw that in as well.
This film had the potential of looking at a grave historical period in both
its glory and its failures using Wellman as its touchstone, but instead it
attempts to elevate an individual as central to a process which involves a
whole society. That perspective is at the core of authoritarian politics
and falls on the shoulders of the film makers.
For a real revolution that doesn't need professionals,
c/o Fifth Estate
P.O. Box 201016
Ferndale MI 48220
*For those interested in a different version of Wellman's unapologetic and
murderous rant about killing the true revolutionaries of Spain, ask one of
those involved in the film's production. I don't mention his name since
this story comes to me second hand. According to the account Wellman told,
members of his International Brigade needed nuts for nourishment and
attempted to steal a truck which was controlled by the anarchist CNT union.
In the mix-up, shots were exchanged and people were struck.
An interesting account which one might be tempted to give the benefit of
the doubt if there hadn't been so many massacres of anarchists and
socialists by the Stalinists, and often with similarly interesting stories
attached to them. Also, one doesn't scream, "We killed you in Spain," if it
was the result of a tragic accident.
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