Cohen on Lambe, 'No Barrier Can Contain It: Cuban Antifascism and the Spanish Civil War'

Ariel Mae Lambe
Joshua Cohen

Ariel Mae Lambe. No Barrier Can Contain It: Cuban Antifascism and the Spanish Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. 330 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-5285-6.

Reviewed by Joshua Cohen (University of Leicester) Published on H-Socialisms (October, 2020) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

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Cuban Antifascism and the Spanish Civil War

Ariel Mae Lambe has produced a superb synthesis of national case study and transnational recasting of Cuban antifascism. The author makes an important contribution to the literature on antifascism through her study of the dynamic relationship between Cubans' struggle against "strongman" rule on their home island and their participation in international networks of solidarity against Franco. In this way, Lambe adds significantly to a recent trend in the literature that highlights antifascism's spatial diversity and its functioning as an "ideal type" of transnational movement, with its active appeal to internationalist-minded socialists, communists, anarchists, liberals, Catholics, and Freemasons, among others.[1] However, Lambe adds nuance to this "transnational turn" in antifascism studies by demonstrating that the situation in Cuba often informed antifascists' sense of the international, so reminding us that understandings of global antifascism can still hinge on national contexts. This antifascism was simultaneously transnational and profoundly Cuban.

The author weaves a narrative thread around the experiences of Cuban activists Teresa "Teté" Casuso and her husband, Pablo de la Torriente Brau. The couple are emblematic of the activists who were forced into exile following Fulgencio Batista's crushing of the large-scale general strike in Cuba in 1935. Exile brought despondency and inertia but Brau's encounter with a rally for the Spanish Republic in New York City in summer 1936 "jolted Pablo from his languid tedium, redirecting his activist impulse into transnational antifascism" (p. 1). The author shows that many Cuban activists reinterpreted their domestic fight first against Gerardo Machado and then Batista as antifascism, leading them to act transnationally.

At its narrowest, participation in the Spanish Civil War marked the continuity of domestic struggle by proxy: the defeat of Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini "would be vengeance on their own dictator, Batista" (pp. 94-5). Lambe shows how exiled activists such as Odio Peréz thought it easier to defeat Franco's nascent military uprising in Spain than to oust the already entrenched Batista regime in Cuba, and how using Franco as a proxy for Batista would become a long-standing Cuban antifascist trope. Of much more significance in No Barrier Can Contain It: Cuban Antifascism and the Spanish Civil War is the deeper sense of confluence between the struggle for a "New Cuba" and a "New Spain." This drew on the intimate historical relationship between the two countries. Cuban communists, for example, saw Franco as representative champion of the same "Old Spain" that had colonized Cuba: Spanish colonialism was a forerunner of fascism and Franco was trying to do to Spain what the Spanish imperialist Valeriano Weyler had inflicted on Cuba. Revolutionary triumph in Spain (or at the least, the survival of the liberal democratic Republic, depending on antifascists' political standpoint) would have implications both for Spain and Cuba—but the two countries could also suffer "parallel defeats by fascism" (p. 177). Communists argued that fascist victory in Spain would lead to fascist victory in Cuba, and both would combine all the worst regressive elements from Europe.

The loose definition of "fascism" adopted by disparate Cuban activists who conflated it particularly with imperialism and dictatorship adds to our understanding of how antifascists saw their enemies. In just a few cases, conceptual looseness queries the extent to which the protagonists missed the special edge of fascism. The fight for a "New Cuba" and a "New Spain" translated into opposing the range of forces considered to imperil both countries and Latin America more broadly: dictators, feudal nobility and large landowners, the army, the church, and capitalists, as well as the explicitly fascist Falange. Justifiably, Lambe does not become over-engaged with "fascism studies," a field in which the definitional minimum of fascist movements is still contested. She is broadly right to take Cubans at their word that they were fighting fascism at home and abroad, based on their own definitions, and that fascism was clearly developing in Spain before 1936. Many antifascists, like George Orwell, conflated all their Nationalist opponents as "Fascists."[2] Some complications of this expansive definition are the limited extent to which the protagonists critically reflected on the implications of Falangist elements equally opposed to "Old Spain," or, as Patrick Bernhard argues, that Italian Fascist and Nazi empire-building, with their experiments in socially engineering the "Fascist New Man" or elevating consciousness of the racial community, were in these aspects departures from the type of imperialism that had subjugated Cuba.[3] 

Lambe analyzes both the unity and factionalism of the disparate antifascist groups, especially on the left. Still, definitions of Cuban antifascism as a fight for a democratic "New Cuba"—Teté's "salute against fascism, the salute of world democracy"—must be problematized by competing ideas about what democracy really meant (p. 123). Tom Buchanan, for example, contests attempts to construct a new antifascist paradigm around a defense of democracy since he is unable to reconcile the liberal and communist notions of this.[4] The conceptual problem with seeing antifascism as a fight for broader values cannot be divorced from the issue of factionalism; it shows up when Lambe covers Cuban anarchists in whose eyes the Spanish Republic had not overthrown the state and so ultimately served fascism (p. 165). Anarchists believed they were fighting for a much more long-term goal than preserving an elected Republican government.

One justification for the book is the clearly disproportionate contribution Cuban antifascists made to the Spanish Civil War. Cuba sent more volunteers than any other Latin American country: they served both in the International Brigades and, in recognition of shared language and culture, the general Republican forces. Lambe draws on estimates that at least 1,067 Cubans participated against the Nationalists: in contrast, the much larger United States sent perhaps only 3,300 volunteers. Lambe shows the ways in which Cuban volunteers' identities were transnational, including in their role as cultural and linguistic translators, drawing on their pan-Hispanic identities and English-language skills sometimes derived from contact with the US.

This transnationalism aids another of Lambe's important contributions: widening understandings of Cuban antifascism away from conflation with communism. General literature on antifascism has moved well away from simplistic portrayals of antifascism as a mere creature of Soviet communism. However, especially in the light of the fillip given to communist antifascist memory culture by the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Lambe makes a key contribution in re-emphasizing the complexity and disparate nature of the island's antifascism. The International Brigades, for example, while still demonstrating the dynamism and rigor of communist organization, were not exclusively communist in their Cuban membership. This included unaffiliated Marxists, other leftists, members of various political groups, and "general antifascists." Lambe sees the transnationalism of the communist effort interfacing with wider transnational orientations. She also reveals a degree of antifascist unity and tolerance that post-1959 events obscured. Cuban communists organized groups of volunteers who were not always members of the Party; communists could deem noncommunists worthy provided they could prove their involvement in anti-imperialist and anti-dictatorial struggles. After the revolution, Fidel Castro's government formulated the category of "bad combatants" in Spain, reserving this not just for the few notorious veterans who did indeed return to fight for Batista but also for disgraced "Trotskyists" and those accused of spying for the CIA. Apart from this official castigation, there was the whole "intentional erasure from the historical record of those Spanish Civil War veterans deemed unworthy by the authorities" (p. 213).

For Lambe, the strength of Cuban antifascism derived exactly from the broad set of values and goals it embraced rather than its just being against fascism. For this reason, despite factional tensions, it was able to include liberals, socialists, anarchists, communists, Trotskyists, anti-imperialists, feminists, Freemasons, and members of the Black and Jewish communities. The interconnectedness of Spain and Cuba allows Lambe to elevate previously neglected forces on the island. While a great deal of scholarly attention has been given to Spain as an example of realized anarchism, Lambe shows that Cuban anarchism was galvanized by events in Spain. Following the violent suppression of the 1935 general strike, Cuban anarchism had been driven underground: with the Spanish Civil War, it was able to regain confidence. Collaboration with the socialist Ateneo Socialista Espanol echoed the powerful revolutionary alliance between anarcho-syndicalists and socialists in Spain.

At the same time, Lambe does not underplay factional tensions. These were intensified by the voice of anarchists who were not ultimately pro-Republican and who fiercely criticized Soviet communism. There was violent schism between communists on the one hand and anarchists and Trotskyists on the other. In August 1934, a group of armed communists murderously attacked the anarcho-syndicalist Federación Obrera de La Habana (Worker Federation of Havana), and there were other communist attacks on Trotskyists in the capital city: these were disturbing harbingers of communist suppression of rival factions in Barcelona in May 1937. Lambe demonstrates that communists repeatedly alienated other leftists and so failed to establish a communist-led Popular Front on the island. This alienation reached its peak when communists entered into partnership with Batista in 1938. However, the author also convincingly argues that within the broad context of antifascism, communists engaged on a day-to-day basis with other leftists and nationalists so that, "there may not have been a general Popular Front in Cuban politics, but there was an anti-Fascist Popular Front in Cuba" (p. 173). 

This argument leads Lambe to the important point that antifascist unity was often achieved despite political fragmentation. She argues for antifascism as a social history that is often obscured by scholarly emphasis on "notorious" leftist factionalism. Lambe demonstrates through her description of personal networks and solidarities that many antifascists cared little about the ideology or goals of political groups, even when they were themselves members of those groups: "It is important to keep this antifascist mass of inspired, largely anonymous people in mind when considering the movement's impact" (p.182). Here, Lambe advances the social history of antifascism, building on Michael Seidman's declaration that while twentieth-century fascism was a "failure," antifascism was a success and perhaps the century’s most powerful ideology.[5] In the British context, Nigel Copsey considers antifascism to be neglected social history, since very many more people were engaged in the movement than were ever members of fascist organizations.[6]

No Barrier is excellent on what was specific to Cuban antifascism. Spain was never only a transnational cause: the threat of fascism to Cuba itself was felt to be very real. Cuban antifascists feared direct Italian and German influence on Cuba, and the Falange (exactly because the fascists also operated transnationally) had offices on the island. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany dispatched agents, influenced intellectuals, and tried to recruit Italian and German expatriates abroad. The presence of the Falange in Cuba was understood by antifascists as posing a postcolonial threat to Cuba. Fears about fascism were inextricably linked to Cuba's still-recent fight for independence from Spain, feeding alarm about a revival of colonizing forces. Cuban antifascism built on the most unifying theme in its island's nationalist activism, which was anti-imperialism directed against growing US interference in Cuba. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Alberto Arredondo, a Cuban of African descent, made the analogy that both the Fascist Italian aggression and Spanish imperialism in Latin America aimed at keeping indigenous peoples in degrading servitude.

Lambe argues that most Black Cubans arrived at antifascism through their racial identities, and that understanding their activism as diasporic is intrinsic to understanding their antifascism. The author argues that for many Black Cubans, protecting Ethiopia was self-defense from colonialism and racism. These factors relating to the specific history and contemporaneous position of Black Cubans fed into a powerful set of transnational ideas, centering on Ethiopia's deep diasporic resonance as the symbolic ancestral homeland for Black people regardless of nationality. According to Lambe, the adoption of a wide definition of fascism that conflated it with racism and imperialism meant that Black Cubans' transition from the Ethiopian cause to defending the Spanish Republic was gradual, and the causation not easy to trace. Lambe does show that "Black" and "Left" antifascism were by no means mutually exclusive, and many Black Cubans arrived in Spain as leftists, while others might have stood by a diasporic position that Spain represented a chance to avenge Ethiopia. Other Black Cubans embraced the universalistic idea of Spain as a fight for all races, and followed left-wing analyses of fascism as a divisive tool intended to split the working class, including along race lines, for the benefit of capitalism.

A complicating factor and something specific to Cuba (but not unique to Cuba in the Latin American context) was the movement of its strongman dictator toward an antifascist position with the coming of the Second World War. Antifascists had long considered Batista a "fascist": anarchists led the way in making this charge against the dictator. By 1939, however, Cuban volunteers were finding it relatively easy to return to the island since Batista was by then increasingly aligning with at least a state version of antifascism. Lambe argues that the dictator moved in this direction for geopolitical reasons, as it became strategic for Cuba to follow the antifascist stance of the Roosevelt administration. The move also allowed Cuba to develop its relationship with antifascist Mexico. There were domestic implications too: Batista's new allies, the communists, were militant antifascists (but, following Stalin, did not stand for a revolution in Spain that would have alienated the liberal democracies). Finally, according to Lambe, Batista was trying to boost his popularity through reforms and an active appeal to the Cuban working class. 

No Barrier is a brilliantly written and well-structured book. In her introduction, Lambe engages with the problem of defining both antifascism and fascism, as well as looking at the diasporic and postcolonial identities that are later important to the narrative. Chapter 1 provides prehistory, taking us from 1920 through to the coming of power of Machado and ending with Batista's crushing of the 1935 strike. Chapter 2 explores the role of communists and Black Cubans in defending Ethiopia, and the transition from this to defending the Spanish Republic. The core chapters address the relevance of Cuba's domestic struggle to transnational antifascism and the Spanish Civil War, covering the Cuban campaign to aid Republican children; the transnational work of Cuban antifascists; and unity, solidarity, and conflict within the Cuban Left. Chapter 5 contains an excellent section on Freemasons, demonstrating their sense of transnational threat given the anti-Mason policies and fierce rhetoric of fascist and right-wing regimes around the world, the impetus of Masonic principles in defending democracy, and the implications of their anticommunism for antifascist unity in Cuba.

This book emanates from an "envisioning Cuba" series, but its ability to add to Cuban history stems exactly from its transnational dimensions. Understanding Cuban antifascism as transnational shows that activism on the island was very much alive during an era that historiography until now has regarded as a long period of inertia and defeatism following Batista's rise to power. No Barrier intersects national and transnational literatures of antifascism, as well as showing that the international dimensions of the Spanish Civil War cannot be separated from the political and cultural national contexts from which volunteers for Spain bravely went. 


[1]. Hugo Garcia, Mercedes Yusta, Xavier Tabet, and Cristina Climaco, eds., "Introduction: Beyond Revisionism. Rethinking Antifascism in the Twenty-First Century," in Rethinking Antifascism: History, Memory and Politics, 1922 to the Present (New York: Berghahn Books, 2016), 5-6.
[2]. George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (London: Secker and Warburg, 1938).
[3]. Patrick Bernhard, "Hitler's Africa in the East: Italian Colonialism as a Model for German Planning in Eastern Europe," Journal of Contemporary History 51, no. 1 (2016): 61–90.
[4]. Tom Buchanan, "'Beyond Cable Street': New Approaches to the Historiography of Antifascism in Britain in the 1930s," in Rethinking Antifascism, 61-75; 70.
[5]. Michael Seidman, "Was the French Popular Front Antifascist?," in Rethinking Antifascism, 43-60; 60.
[6]. Nigel Copsey, Antifascism in Britain, 2nd ed. (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2017), xv-xvi.

Citation: Joshua Cohen. Review of Lambe, Ariel Mae, No Barrier Can Contain It: Cuban Antifascism and the Spanish Civil War. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL:

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