What Nightmares! What Dreams?

On the Sunday after the Anarchist Bookfair, I decided to visit the Spanish Civil War exhibition called "Dreams + Nightmares" at the London Imperial War Museum (on until the 28th of April, 2002). This exhibition contains works by Picasso, Miro and others, photographs by the likes of Robert Capa and David Seymour, artefacts from the war, International Brigade memorabilia, Republican (including CNT-FAI) and Nationalist posters and letters from the likes of George Orwell and Julian Bell. An impressive collection.

Sadly the hopes generated by the title failed to materialise. While the exhibition does contain some interesting pieces, the dreams that initially inspired the resistance to Franco (anarchism) were nowhere to be seen. They may quote the famous words of Durruti on there being a "new world in our hearts" but information on what that new world could be is sadly lacking. One reference to workers aiming for a society based on "common ownership" does not do the anarchist dream justice. Nor is the extensive social revolution in Republican Spain mentioned, never mind shown by pictures of the collectives or the testimony of those who created, ran and lived in them. As for the militias, they are mentioned and a few pictures are provided but their libertarian spirit and organisation is sadly ignored.

All in all, the only "dream" presented is that of the International volunteers (particularly the intellectuals and artists) who came to fight fascism and for democracy. The dream of the Spanish workers and peasants in the CNT, the dream they tried to create in their unions, collectives, militias and schools, the dream of freedom, equality and solidarity is nowhere to be seen. The positive goal of libertarian socialism is replaced by the negativity of anti-fascism and the defence of oppression and inequality (in the shape of liberal capitalism).

This does not mean that the CNT is ignored. Of course not, it is mentioned (usually in passing) and there are anarchist quotes, posters and artefacts (including a fund-raising bandanna with Durruti on it). Rather, the overwhelming thrust of the exhibition is those famous names who fought fascism or were murdered by it. Sadly, it is the murder of people like Lorca by the fascists that ensured that the working class victims were not forgotten. Be that as it may, it appears that one murdered poet has more significance than the millions of working class people actually trying to change society into one where life becomes an expression of poetry, not poverty.

The nightmare of fascism and war are, however, well expressed. The contrast between the supporters of Franco and those on the Republican side is obvious -- the class nature of the war is there for all to see. While Franco is seen with society's elite, the poverty of the working class is hammered home. Sadly, the resistance to that poverty is not given the focus it deserves and so the visitor will have no idea of the dreams that actually shaped so much of Spanish working class life.

As such, the exhibition fails to meet the promise of its title.

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