Intellectual Backgrounds to

For Whom The Bell Tolls


The Crisis of Liberalism


After the catastrophe of World War One intellectuals had become disillusioned with the philosophical beliefs and the political ideals that we associate with liberal government:


Locke’s social contract and the doctrine of natural rights

(In practice bourgeois business interests dominated liberal government. Political freedom was seen as justification for the control of capital by an increasingly small group of powerful people. Liberal governments had also failed to deal decisively with the social consequences of industrial capitalism. Governments refused to regulate the violent rise and fall of the world economy; many craftspeople also struggled to adjust to a new economy in which their old skills were no longer useful.)

The innate goodness of humans

(Nationalist movements had unleashed irrational passions, and the Great War had revealed no limit for man’s capacity for cruelty and violence. Philosophers like Nietzsche glorified the irrational and mocked the weakness of traditional moral belief.  Evolutionary biologists like Darwin argued that humans were no different in kind than the animals. Not merely did they propose a purely physical origin of mankind, but they argued that there is no moral dimension to evolution. Psychologists like Freud suggested that irrational forces beyond our control or understanding drive human behavior.) 

the efficacy of reason

The great optimists of the Enlightenment had placed their faith in the ability of reason to engineer a new and better society. Adam Smith had argued that the competition generated by the pursuit of self-interest would reward human industry and create a more wealthy and equitable society.  Yet the lower classes suffered in terrible living conditions, and their leaders doubted that even if reform were enacted, it could not begin to address the severity of the problems of poverty. The competition between national states had lead to brutal and dehumanizing imperialist campaigns and an arms race that resulted in the catastrophe of world war.

science’s promise of a new utopia

Instead of improved quality of life, the new technologies had created weapons of mass destruction: the machine gun, tanks, poison gas, the airplane. Military leaders had used these weapons indiscriminately resulting in the deaths not only of millions of soldiers but also significant segments of the civilian population.


The Rise of New Political Ideologies


New political movements on both the left and the right rose to challenge the legitimacy of liberal government that had become enmired in a worldwide depression.


Fascism (the challenge to liberalism from the right)



The word derives from the Italian word fasces- the bundle of rods that a Roman dictator wielded as a symbol of his absolute power during a time of emergency.

The Spread of Fascism

Fascist governments seized power first in Italy and then in country after country throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

The Roots of Fascism in Late Romantic Thought

Fascists rejected the Enlightenment belief in reason in favor of the Romantic exaltation of vital, creative life force expressed in powerful emotions and in action. They believed that reason enfeebled the will. Unlike earlier Romantics, the fascists did not believe in the imagination’s power to liberate the individual; rather they exalted a national, increasingly racial identity.

Fascism: the Rebellion of the Sons vs. the Fathers

Fascists sought the overthrow of impotent parliamentary forms of government with their mediocre (and aged) leaders who would be replaced by young, virile and dynamic leaders who possessed the will to take decisive action.

The New Nationalism

Fascists promoted a new form of nationalism (that grew out of late Romantic thought)

As opposed to liberal movements that aimed to secure individual rights and create autonomous states, fascist movements sacrificed political liberty to dreams of national greatness and the promise of imperial power.

Social Darwinists denounced ethnic and cultural minorities (such as gypsies and Jews) and created a new nationalist cult revering ancestors and the sacred bond between the people (the Volk) and their national blood, soil, and mythic past.

Fascists were the first modern politicians to tap the vast potential of mass media to manipulate the beliefs of the people. They used film, poster art, and huge mass meetings to promote adulation of the party and its demagogic leaders.

The Fascist Political Coalition

Fascists formed a political coalition (frequently glued together with racist ideology) of the military, the landholding aristocracy, the clergy, and big industrialists. They sought support among the masses of peasants and the lower middle class (the petit- bourgeoisie). They found support among those groups that had been most disturbed by the changing economics of the industrial age.

Fascist Anti-Communism

Fascists were united by their fear and hatred of the emerging proletariat. They were able to take power primarily due to the fear that the Russian Revolution would spread to Central Europe.


The Fascist Inversion of Enlightenment Beliefs


Human Equality:                     racism

Rule of Law:                           glorification of spontaneous action and violence

Cosmopolitan Brotherhood:   A Nation of ‘Volk’ willing to expel and if necessary exterminate aliens.

Individual Rights:                   Collective Identity: an elite core of party initiates surround a demagogic leader.


Umberto Eco Makes a List of the 14 Common Features of Fascism (link) (NYRB essay)


1.      The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”

2.      The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”

3.      The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”

4.      Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”

5.      Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”

6.      Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”

7.      The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”

8.      The enemy is both strong and weak. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”

9.      Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”

10.  Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”

11.  Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”

12.  Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”

13.  Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”

14.  Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”


Marxism (the challenge to liberalism from the left)


            Socialism in Spain

In Spain, the socialists hailed primarily from the industrial region around Madrid and from the Basque industrial cities on the Northern Coast. The Union General de Trabajadores (UGT) was organized in 1879. Unlike orthodox Marxists, the socialists in this union believed that political actions such as strikes should be accompanied by efforts to reform the government through parliamentary methods. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the UGT voted not to join the Third Internationale. The socialist intellectuals of the UGT enabled the Republican- Socialist coalition to form which took power in 1936- sparking the Civil War.


Origins of Marxist Thought in Enlightenment Philosophy

Marxist political philosophy grew out of the same core Enlightenment beliefs from which liberalism originated.

The essential goodness of human nature

The belief in the power of reason to perfect society

Social Rights over Political Rights

Marxists rejected liberal government’s protection of individual rights at the expense of social justice.

Violent Revolution

Marxists believed that social justice could never be achieved through reform. Only violent revolution could bring the working class to power and destroy the structure of capitalism.

History as Class Struggle

Marxists believed that class struggle and violence were the essential vehicles of social change and progress.

Socio-Economic Environment Determines Identity

Where liberals believed that the individual could overcome poverty through education and the development of self-discipline, Marxists argued that the individual alone could not determine his own destiny. Real social change could only be achieved through the transformation of the environment itself.

Dialectical Materialism

Marxists held to a strictly materialist philosophy. They rejected all metaphysical and religious idealism. They argued that people should struggle to change the world, not to transcend it.

Marxists held that historical progress is not random but can be understood through rational principles.

Marxists believe that existence precedes identity. Man is defined by the socio-economic environment (not liberal rights, not national identity, not religious belief, not ethnic culture).

Marxists argued that technological advances in the ways that goods are produced and wealth is distributed drive historical change.

Marxists that technological change creates class struggle. New social classes emerge and history proceeds when opposing classes clash.



The Stages of History

Slavery: slave owner vs. land owner

Technological change: the hand mill, loose yoke, plow

Feudalism: aristocracy vs. bourgeoisie

Power machinery

Capitalism: bourgeoisie vs. industrial worker

The computer?

Socialism: the final stage of history





Leninism in Spain

In Spain the Leninist faction among the socialists organized as the Spanish Communist Party (CP). They functioned under the direct orders of the central party in Moscow. During the Civil War, as the Republic’s war effort depended more and more upon support form the Soviet Union, the Communists sought to oust more moderate socialists from positions of power and refused any compromise with the anarchists.



Unlike Marx, who believed that the forces of history would lead inevitably to a successful worker’s revolution, Lenin believed that change would come only through the intervention of a political elite that would educate and lead the masses.

The dictatorship of the proletariat

Lenin argued that the liberal-capitalist phase of history could be by-passed in undeveloped countries like Russia through a political stage that he described as ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. In this phase, the revolutionary elite would seize power and then force the country through its capitalist phase of industrial development. Once the country had developed an industrial infrastructure, the need for authoritarian control would eventually decrease, and the worker’s utopia would be realized.

Hard Bolshevism (vs.the soft Menshevik belief in socialism through reform)

Bolsheviks criticized earlier revolutionaries’ soft ‘petit-bourgeois’ morality. They argued that change could only be achieved through the disciplined denial of compassion.

The Bolsheviks were cold-blooded, opportunistic, disciplined, scientific, patient and fanatical. They insisted upon military discipline and absolute obedience to orders from above.

Bolsheviks believed that the revolutionary goal was the only good. Any act that contributed to this end was therefore good.

Bolsheviks mistrusted any democratic spontaneity and insisted upon the necessity of the party elite’s absolute leadership.

Bolsheviks were also master manipulators of mass politics:

Constant agitation and manipulation of the masses

Emotional sloganeering “Land, Bread, and Peace”

No institutional role for the popular will


International Revolution

the Bolshevik ideology held enormous appeal to peoples in the undeveloped countries which had been exploited by imperialism

the notion of a bold leap past the bourgeois phase of development into industrial modernism

Bolshevik ideology combined socialism with a strong anti-Western message: throwing off the chains of imperialism

In 1919 the Bolshevik government formed the Comintern: a branch of government devoted to the export of the revolution to the liberal West. The Bolsheviks financed the development of revolutionary cells that aggressively subverted liberal democracy.



                (notes from The Spanish Republic and the Civil War (1965) Gabriel Jackson (pp. 17-21))


Anarchism in Spain

The other mass working class movement to arise in the late nineteenth century was anarchism. In Spain, anarchism gained more support than socialism- particularly in the region of Catalonia, and this split in the left would eventually lead to fighting as the Republican cause unraveled during the Civil War.


Anarchism vs. Socialism

Anarchism and socialism share the same purpose: the creation of a collective social system. They both look to the industrial workers to lead the revolution. However, socialists organized their movement from above while anarchists opposed any authority and believed that power should arise from the workers themselves. Socialist leaders demanded strict discipline from the workers. The revolutionary elite calls the shots: where and when strikes or demonstrations should be taken. Socialists also believed that workers’ goals could be met through the reform process: compromise with the liberals was possible. Anarchists opposed any effort at reform; they opposed any centralized leadership. They believed that their aims could be achieved through a general strike that would topple the government.

Anarchism and the Ancient Spanish Fuero

Anarchists simply sought the destruction of the state’s central authority. They did not theorize about the form of government that would replace it beyond asserting that power should flow up from decentralized local organizations. This concept of the revolutionary commune as the basic unit of society appealed to many Spaniards because the ancient institution of the village fuero was organized along collective lines. The village would share firewood, pasture land, and farm the ancient church lands together. Fishermen in Catalonia collectively owned the ships and nets, and they shared profits together. Anarchism exercised a religious fascination upon the people: its leaders were charismatic idealists, and the movement as a whole has been compared to primitive Christianity. The coming general strike loomed like Judgment Day.

The CNT in Catalonia

The Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo (CNT) was formed in 1911 in Barcelona (in the NW province of Catalonia). This anarcho-syndicalist union of factory workers organized itself according to the principles of the fuero. There were no degrees of membership according to skill. Their leaders were unpaid, and they asked for no dues. The idealistic vision sought the creation of a classless society in which human equality would be realized. Despite the millenarian character of this ideology, the loose organization of the CNT enabled a violent terrorist wing to develop. Three Spanish Prime Ministers were killed by anarchist bombs. Also, it was easy for the police to infiltrate this organization.


During the early 1920’s in Catalonia, a series of terrorist attacks brought down the hammer of the government, and a power struggle for leadership of the CNT took place between advocates of violence and advocates of union actions. The suppression of strikes by the dictator Rivera in 1923 sealed the victory for the extreme wing of the anarchist party. The Federacion Anarchista Iberica (FAI) took over leadership of the union and remained in the position of dominance through the 1930’s. The extremist views of the FAI helped split the left and prevent the Republic from mounting a united effort against the Fascists.