Radical liberation: A road to the Spanish Civil War

December 4, 2011

Abstract of the 2011 George Watt Memorial Award in the Undergraduate Category. Read the full winning essay here.

The story of Thane Summers, a student at the University of Washington, provides a case study of one man’s road to the Spanish Civil War. Because he came from a middle class, white, native born, Christian family, Thane did not experience the social discrimination and political disenfranchisement common to many other Lincoln volunteers. He did not adopt political radicalism and anti-fascism to address lived injustices. Instead, activism for him was a way to ameliorate social and personal alienation. It was a way for Thane to feel integrated into society. It was also a way for him to achieve a sense of personal reintegration. Leftist ideology esteemed aspects of Thane’s personality that had been scorned or stifled by the bourgeois values he had so uncomfortably internalized in his early youth.

To establish what these values were, I examine how they were expressed by Thane’s father Lane, who, according to Thane, endorsed a vision of social and personal worth that thoroughly alienated his son. To construct a picture of the values Thane associated with political radicalism, I look at how these values were articulated by people purportedly influential in Thane’s turn left. It was through exposure to these influential figures that Thane likely formed his version of ethically sound action.

This photo of Thane Summers appeared shortly after his death in Spain in October 1937. Click on the image to read the accompanying article. Courtesy of Joe McArdle, Univ. of Washington, Seattle.

These two sets of values gave rise to two distinct emotional styles. Transitioning from one to the other allowed Thane to express aspects of himself he had previously repressed. The transition was not entirely a comfortable one, however, as it put great strain on long standing relationships he had with people who held to mores and methods of expression Thane came to reject. Finally, I examine Thane’s claim that activism and social consciousness “solved” his personal problems, such as listlessness and self-loathing.