Jorge Semprun is a name that may not be well known, but it should be. Semprun, as Stephen Schwartz writes in this brilliant eulogy to the late Spanish Republican and anti-Communist intellectual, is a man whose work deserves to be read now. Schwartz writes:
In 1964, Semprún was expelled from the PCE along with the activist and political writer Fernando Claudín. For Semprún and Claudín, their “purging” by the party was a liberation. The PCE had never gained the confidence of the Spanish masses and was among the first Moscow-directed entities to be forced by historical circumstance to question its role and its future. The doubts of Semprún and Claudín went far beyond tactical differences, although they represented a curious combination of nostalgia and hope about the future of Soviet communism, even as they joined the ranks of its most articulate and necessary critics. Semprún became, in many ways, the great Hispanic equivalent of George Orwell. He began writing screenplays and books through which, although undetected by most readers, softly, almost imperceptibly, a troubled conscience that he shared with many of his comrades spoke of the fate of the Spanish Revolution.
Most people know him for his screenplay of the 1966 film, La Guerre est Finie, the Alan Renais movie about the disillusionment of a Communist courier in post-Civil War Spain. In 1997, Semprun published his memoir, The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez, using the secret Communist Party name he had used when he did underground work in Franco Spain. (If you have access to Ebsco, you can read my TNR review of it here.) Of his memoir, I wrote the following:
Now Semprun has given us his autobiography as a communist militant, written in the style of an antichronological novel, both a gripping story of the life of an underground militant and a devastating critique of Western European communism in a time of collapse. It is a work that can be compared favorably with the political novels and memoirs of Orwell, Koestler, and Silone, all of which covered similar ground in a different epoch.
Semprun himself understood the false nature of Communist memory, although when he wrote his memoir, he was still a man of the Left, although already greatly disillusioned. Semprun wrote:
And you are once again amazed to note how selective the memory of Communists is. They remember certain things and forget others. And others they banish entirely from their memory. Communist memory is in reality a way of not remembering; it does not consist of recalling the past but of censoring it. The memory of Communist leaders functions pragmatically, in accordance with the political interests and objectives of the moment. It is not a historical memory, a memory that bears witness, but an ideological memory.
I thought of that two weeks ago, during our GWU conference on Soviet espionage and the Rosenberg case. His words apply perfectly to all those true believers in the innocence of the two Soviet spies. Despite all the accumulated evidence, they persist in viewing the Rosenbergs as innocent martyrs of the imperialist United States. Facts do not interfere with their judgement. Their memory and allegiance is still ideological, and all argument therefore can never be won. They must remain, as the late CP leader Gus Hall once said of the Rosenbergs, “the sacred couple.”
Unlike these people, it was Semprun’s heresy, as I wrote, to believe in “bearing truthful witness to the past,” and to “unfold that witness without hesitation, regardless of the consequences.” No wonder the Spanish Communists charged their old comrade with being part of a CIA campaign against the Spanish left. He was to write- and recall- he wrote these words in 1997-that “the ideology of Socialism is the opium of the people.” Now, this view is commonplace and hardly controversial. In left-wing Europe at the time, it came as a bombshell to those who had been his comrade in the socialist movement. He went so far as to even point out that freedom in Franco Spain- whose regime he had fought against for years- was greater than that in any “socialist” country, including Cuba.
Illusions die hard. Most people are reluctant to surrender those of their youth. Jorge Semprun was not one of those moral cowards. He made the break with his former comrades at a moment when it meant he would lose a lot, and suffer great personal attack. So I endorse Stephen Schwartz’s words, when he writes that we should honor Jorge Semprun by understanding that “his books and his screenplays deserve a new and broader audience.” So let me close with Schwartz’s elegant words in his eulogy:
In the face of the global economic crisis and the massacres in Libya and Syria, where scenes reminiscent of Barcelona and Madrid in 1936—the sudden and bloody division of the population, including the armed forces—have abruptly replaced the “happy face” image of “social media” in an Arab Spring, we must say la guerre n’est pas finie, the war is not over. With the death of Jorge Semprún, we have lost one of its greatest heroes.