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Courage When It Counted

The Saga of Steve Nelson And the Spanish Civil War

By Michael Kendall

Your name and your deeds were forgotten

Before your bones were dry

And the lie that slew you is buried

Under a deeper lie;

But the thing that I saw in your face

No power can disinherit;

No bomb that ever burst

Shatters the crystal sprit. --in "Looking Back on the Spanish War"

George Orwell wrote the above lines in tribute to an Italian colonel who dies fighting General Francisco Franco's fascist army in 1938. Orwell, who fought in Spain himself, always wrote respectfully, almost religiously, about the foreigners who aided the republicans during the Spanish Civil War.

Most American leftists who know about the civil war revere the veterans of the International Brigades with feelings of awe similar to Orwell's. These men, whatever their motivations, defended a legitimate republication government against a puppet of Hitler and Mussolini when the government of the western democracies only sought to appease the fascists. The failure of appeasement and the resulting World War proved the foresight of the republican supporters. Steven Nelson,a veteran of the civil war who now lives in Truro, Mass., says history's vindication is the greatest reward for having fought in the war.

The first thing one notices about the 74-year-old Nelson is the gentle but active physical presence of a kindly man. Though genuine, this appearance seems somewhat incongruous after one looks a moment longer and notices the long scar, left by a fascist bullet, which runs down his neck. An activist in the American Communist Party for 30 years, Nelson is, above all else, a Marxist and a fighter. These two characteristics made it almost inevitable that Nelson would join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and go to Spain.

Nelson arrived in Spain in February 1937 and fought for more than a year until the International Brigades were sent home by the republicans in 1938. In Spain, he served as the brigade's second-in-command, the political commissar. But only a small part of his career as a Marxist actively seeking change was spent in Spain. Born in Yugoslavia in 1904, Nelson emigrated to the U.S. and became a radical worker in the 1920s, soon joining the Communist Party and becoming embroiled in the battles of the American left. As a party member, Nelson agitated for unions, civil rights, unemployment benefits and other "radical" causes, and yet the months he spent in Spain fighting for an unsuccessful cause are the times of which he is proudest.

About 3300 Americans (most of whom were party members, Nelson says) went to aid the republicans. The volunteers, all young, single men, left the U.S. with passports marked "Not Valid for Spain," because of the U.S. neutralist policy.

When they got where they were not supposed to be, "they had to storm the fortresses" for many of their weapons, Nelson says. He adds that the bravery "was the kind you can only visualize in the Hollywood movies." Hitler sent German tank and aircraft divisions which technologically outdistanced the republican forces, enabling the fascists to bomb Guernica, Madrid and other large population centers in republican control.

Under these conditions, the Lincoln Brigade fought with the other groups in the international column--the Garibaldi Brigade from Italy, the Mazaryk Brigade from Czeckoslovakia--around Madrid at Jarama and Brunette, at Belchitte, Quinto, Catalonia and at the Aragon Front.

Beyond the military actions, political questions about the Civil War have split leftists. In Homage to Catalonia. Orwell claims the Communists rejected the opportunity for socialist revolution, and instead allied with the bourgeois classes against the anarchists and lost the support of the peasants. Nelson calls Orwell's book the worst work on the civil war any says. "Orwell gave a distorted view of what the forces were in Spain. He expected socialist revolution. Actually the struggle in Spain was to defeat fascism and save the Republic."

Nelson returned from Spain and became a recruiter for the party. Although initially the public received the veterans sympathetically. Nelson says in the late 1940s McCarthyism created an air of repression to which they fell victim. "They came into our office and just picked us up for possession of books and having ideas," Nelson says. He spent a year in jail from 1952-1953 before successfully appealing a 20-year sentence for sedition and violation of the Smith Act. Not until 1973 did the federal government remove the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of which Nelson is currently national commander, from the Attorney General's list of subversive groups.

After leaving the party for ideological reasons in 1957, Nelson returned to carpentry and built his current home in Truro. He has remained a committed Marxist, but he is quick to note the different interpretations of Marxism. He says about the Soviet Union and China. "The main thing is that they are not a model for us" and he faults them for their repression of dissidents. "A more native type of Marxism" best suits the U.S., Nelson says, and he favors the Western European Communist parties which support civil liberties and work within the democratic processes.

while having strong ideological commitments, Nelson has not allowed his intellect to paralyze his actions. The Lincoln Brigade veterans are a mixture of communists, former communists, trade unionists and other leftists and Nelson says that they have remained active in all spheres of political action, and adds, "We have been consistently anti-fascist to this day." As an organization or as individuals, Nelson says the veterans strenuously opposed fascism during World Ear II, "were represented at every demonstration in Washington" against the Vietnam War, and today oppose the Pinochet regime in Chile. Most veterans vote for liberal democrats. Nelson believes, and he says about the 1976 Presidential election, "What the hell could you do, support Ford?"

Nelson and most of the other veterans still retain a special concern for Spain. He sees "a very hopeful situation there" because a variety of forces are weakening the fascists' power. Franco died two years ago, Basque and Catalonian nationalists oppose the central government, the Church has separated from the fascists, the trade union movement has gained strength, and the present government recently gave Communist party the legal right to exist.

Nelson keeps in touch with friends and fellow radicals, and enjoys the hard earned pleasure of reminiscing about his past actions. His work to unionize the slaughterhouses, steel mills and auto plants preceded the acceptance of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the United Auto Workers by American workers and industry. Before the went to Spain, Nelson agitated for civil rights and unemployment benefits, issues which Roosevelt could never make fully "respectable." While not ashamed about his membership in the party,* is not the subject which Nelson favors in an open discussion. It is what he did as a Communist that he feels most comfortable discussing.

"Most of us were members of the party then because the Communists were the only organized radical outfit," Nelson says. With the luxury of hindsight, it is easy to introduce questions about such topics as the excesses of Stalinism, but when reviewing the total of Nelson's judgments, he merely says, "Who is going to argue who is perfectly right?"

Nelson is a working class radical, not a fashionably left celebrity or secure academic, and he has sacrificed any chance for a comfortable, secure life in the support of unpopular causes. Few people recognize or appreciate the work Nelson and his fellow radicals have done and this seems to be a price he willingly paid. He does not speak harshly about his disappointments or opponents and instead, looks at the fruit which his actions helped to bear. What Nelson says about the effects of the brigade's actions in Spain on changing American opinion towards fascism small way we helped to bring that consciousness about.

Nelson does not argue over who was perfectly right and asks only that the members of the brigade be remembered as fighting fascism when few others would. Current politics and unionism still interest Nelson, but he, like a small, romantic group of American leftists, view those few years in the 1930s as a time of fulfillment, not defeat, and the clumsy poetry of George Orwell still bears meaning to them. Nelson calls the civil war the "high point of my life in the sense that when you had to be counted. I was not afraid to say I was there."

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