In celebration of the life and work of Cervantes on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death


cervantes23 April 2016 was not only the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare but also that of the world-renowned Spanish writer, Cervantes, author of Don Quixote and numerous other novels, plays and poetry. In actual fact, Shakespeare and Cervantes died 11 days apart from each other since England when Shakespeare died was still using the antiquated Julian calendar while Spain, Italy and France had moved on to the more accurate Gregorian calendar in 1582 when October 5 was re-designated October 15, with a resultant ‘loss’ of 10 days. In addition it has been established that Cervantes actually died some time on 22 April and that it was his funeral that took place on the 23rd. In terms of the Gregorian calendar (that was eventually adopted in England in 1752) Shakespeare actually died on 3 May. Nevertheless the coincidence of their official dates of death has prompted many a comparison between the two writers. Since Shakespeare, we are happy to say, is receiving all the attention in the UK that he richly deserves, we make haste in LALKAR to give some measure of justice to the genius of his contemporary, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

Both Cervantes and Shakespeare were very much products of their times, times that were in many respects remarkably similar in England and in Spain, although in the event England subsequently proved able to move forward more rapidly and decisively than proved to be the case in Spain. In both countries the feudal nobility held state power, but in both the feudal economy was in decay to a considerable extent, while the bourgeoisie was on the rise, boosted by the expansion of trade in general and especially that with the newly-discovered Americas:

The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development ” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto).

In both countries bourgeois wealth was able to command concessions to bourgeois interests from the monarch, who was happy to take advantage bourgeois support to gain the upper hand against his/her feudal rivals at home and abroad, a support which, needless to say, always came at a price.

At the same time the feudal economy was putrefying. The inflation caused in Spain through the import of massive amounts of gold and silver looted from the Americas caused massive inflation which bankrupted many of the nobility, leaving the scions of long noble lineage barely able to subsist on what was produced on their land by what remained of their retainers, while others neglected agriculture in order to live the parasitic high life in luxurious palaces that they had built in the vicinity of the royal court. Peasants by the hundreds of thousands were either forced off the land to make way for merino sheep (whose wool was used by the burgeoning cloth manufacturers of Segovia) or they found they could not in any event make their living in the traditional manner and drifted away from the countryside to the towns where they had to live off their wits.

The proletariat created by the breaking up of the bands of feudal retainers and by the forcible expropriation of the people from the soil, this ‘free’ proletariat could not possibly be absorbed by the nascent manufactures as fast as it was thrown upon the world. On the other hand, these men, suddenly dragged from their wonted mode of life, could not as suddenly adapt themselves to the discipline of their new condition. They were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances ...” (Marx, Capital, vol. 1, chapter 28).

However, it was not just the peasantry who were being proletarianised – other impoverished sections of society, including considerable numbers of the nobility experiencing very straitened means, were also drifting round the towns trying by fair means or foul to find some way of earning a living. Cervantes himself came into that category. Although his creation Don Quixote was not concerned with earning a living, he was nevertheless depicted as one of the members of the impoverished nobility. While his estate presumably just about ran to providing him with food and clothing, he was mounted on a half-starved horse in very poor condition.

The massive changes that were occurring in the lives of the masses naturally gave rise in Spain as much as it did in England to continuous lively discussion and debate in the taverns, the social gathering places of the epoch, as people struggled to understand what was going on in the world, and laughed at the glaring contradictoriness of a world staggering blindly from the old to the new.

Both Cervantes and Shakespeare in their works contribute to this debate and discussion and do so, moreover, at the level of the common people in language understood by them. Both speak the language of the streets, albeit more elegantly than most, which was at the time a tremendous innovation since before then the arts were the exclusive preserve of the rich and highly educated noblemen who gave patronage and were the sole possible source of income for writers and painters. But circumstances had provided a burgeoning proletariat with a thirst for entertainment whose cumulative pennies could support an artist who made himself popular. Cervantes had no noble patron and depended entirely on selling his books to the public, while Shakespeare depended on attracting the London public to the performances at his theatre and actually had to pay the king to be allowed to designate his company as being patronised by royalty.

Don Quixote, the novel

It is in the context of its reflection of a society in transition that it can be appreciated what a truly great novel Don Quixote is. Cervantes started writing it while in prison, where throughout his life he frequently ended up for short periods as a result of inability to pay a debt or some failure in his accounting methods, in addition to the five years spent as a young man as a slave in Algeria after being captured by pirates. The novel was published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615 respectively. The first part was translated into English very shortly after it appeared in Spanish and already in 1607 the concept of tilting at windmills that had been introduced by Don Quixote was familiar enough to be mentioned by George Wilkins in his Miseries of Inforst Marriage published that year. Shakespeare was familiar with Cervantes’ work as is shown by the fact, recently come to light, that he co-authored, along with his colleague John Fletcher, a play about one of the undeservedly lesser known characters in Don Quixote whose name was Cardenio and who recounts to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, who came across him wandering in the mountains, the tragic story of his lost love. The play was shown in the Globe Theatre in 1613 but the playtext was then lost for many years until a copy came to light in 1727. Although experts were divided as to whether Shakespeare was involved in writing it, there is nowadays general agreement that he was.

At all events, the point is that Cervantes’ work became popular in England precisely because it reflected the same social movement as was happening in England just as much as in Spain.

The two principal characters in Don Quixote are of course Don Quixote himself and his faithful retainer, Sancho Panza, whom he refers to as his squire. Don Quixote represents the ruling feudal class which is in decay, while Sancho – the sturdy but uneducated simple peasant – the new society that is as yet too undeveloped to replace the old. Through these two characters, Cervantes mercilessly ridicules the dying feudal class and all that it stands for, contrasting it to the practical common sense of the popular masses who were adapting far better to the demands of the changing economic infrastructure of society.

The noble impoverished but parasitic Don Quixote spends his days reading stories of knight errantry, which were a popular form of fiction at that time. Knights errant were gentlemen, like the Knights of the Round Table in Britain, who supposedly in times that had well gone by, times when feudalism was in the prime of life, went out into the world to offer their gratuitous services to those who had been, or were under threat of being, wronged. Damsels in distress were a particularly popular object of their gallantry. Like quite a few petty-bourgeois political pundits today who are regularly wheeled out to air their views in the bourgeois media, Don Quixote imagined that the solution to the chaos and injustice prevailing in the 16th century world that was in transit to a new society lay in turning back the wheel of history to these supposedly happier times. The absurdity of this concept is personified in Don Quixote setting himself up as a knight errant, wearing a barber’s basin on his head since he was unable to source an actual helmet, and tilting at windmills which he insisted on seeing as hostile giants.

Time and again, however, reality gets the better of him. One example of this is demonstrated by Don Quixote’s attitude to money. In feudal society there was relatively little need of money as the needs of people were mostly met within the feudal estates which produced and distributed internally almost everything that was wanted without any need of exchange. In the early days, even taxes were often paid in kind rather than in cash. In this society, money was the tasteless concern of the lower orders, the bourgeois, whose living depended on commerce and who had previously formed only a small and weak sector of the population, despised as grasping and unrefined. Money making was quite literally ignoble. These attitudes persisted among the feudal nobility even as Cervantes was writing, even though the bourgeoisie had become rather powerful and commodity production and exchange was rapidly expanding and was no longer in any way exceptional.

Don Quixote, as a scion of the feudal ruling class, however, clings to old attitudes. He arrives penniless with Sancho Panza at an inn where he hopes to receive sustenance and accommodation, for which the landlord, naturally, expects to be paid. Don Quixote is indignant:

“Has he any precedent that a knight errant ever paid taxes, subsidy, poll tax, or so much as fare or ferry? What tailor ever had money for his clothes? Or what constable ever made him a reckoning for lodging in his castle?” , he exclaims. And furthermore, “I never read in any history of chivalry that any knight-errand ever carried money about him”.

Maybe the innkeeper has met his type before since he has a ready answer to Don Quixote’s nonsense:

“‘You are mistaken,’ cried the innkeeper, ‘for admit the histories are silent in this matter, the authors thinking it needless to mention things so evidently necessary as money and clean shirts, yet there is no reason to believe the knights went without either; and you may rest assured that all the knights-errant, of whom so many histories are full, had their purses well lined to supply themselves with necessaries, and carried also with them some shirts, and a small box of salves to heal their wounds.'”

Don Quixote took this lesson well to heart and thereafter always carried money with him, although he had to sell the family silver in order to acquire it.

The ideological mainstay of feudalism was of course Catholicism whose tenets were vigorously enforced by the Church which, in its efforts to maintain the crumbling old order, engaged in ruthless persecution of those who did not conform with its demands. The Holy Inquisition regularly consigned to the flames people who fell out of favour with the Church, and its many critics therefore had to exercise tremendous caution. Cervantes ingeniously put his criticisms of the church in the mouth of Don Quixote, who was clearly mad and obviously it was not Cervantes’ fault if there were people around who thought madmen should be taken seriously! Throughout Don Quixote feudalism and its religious upholders are subjected to criticism, but all under the guise of bawdy humour.

One scene in the book involves the burning of all Don Quixote’s books – not by the Church but by his concerned relatives who are worried about how his head has been turned by tales of knight errantry. His niece exclaims that his books richly deserve to burnt ‘like heretics’.

The author remarks: “That night the housekeeper burned to ashes all the books that were in the yard and in the whole house; and some must have been consumed that deserved preservation in everlasting archives, but their fate and the laziness of the inquisitor did not permit it, and so in them was verified the proverb that the innocent suffer for the guilty.” Of course what he really means is that many of the heretics deserved preservation in everlasting archives and should never have been burnt. But cleverly he never said that.

Marx so enjoyed Don Quixote that he used to read it to his children.

Relevance of Don Quixote today

Fast forward 400 years and one sees clear parallels between 16th century Spain and present-day society dominated by imperialism – a decadent, moribund and parasitic capitalism. Just as the decadent and decaying Spanish society proved unequal to the task of developing the productive forces (for reasons peculiar to Spanish development), capitalism in its imperialist stage, which it reached over a hundred years ago, far from being able to take society forward only acts as a brake on the productive forces, as is evident from the worst-ever crisis engulfing it, and thus retards the forward movement of society.

Imperialism, under the leadership of US imperialism, has for decades been acting as a global counter-revolutionary gendarme in a vain attempt to preserve a historically outmoded system of production and crush all opposition to this system. Spain was the richest and most powerful state in the 16th century, as is the US today. Madrid was the capital of global counter-revolution then as Washington is today. Endless foreign wars exhausted Spain and emptied its treasury, as is being experienced by the US today.

Just as it appears to be at the height of its power, the US is set on a path of inexorable decline, as has been commented upon by even bourgeois, but perceptive, observers such as Paul Kennedy. Armed to the teeth with the most sophisticated killing machines that modern technology can provide, it is waging endless wars which it is unable to win. Peasants wearing baggy trousers and flipflops and carrying AK47s – the great equalisers of our time – have beaten this mighty imperialist power in a succession of wars – from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq. It is increasingly unable to take large casualties because of the unjustness of its predatory wars for domination which have laid waste whole countries and destroyed millions of lives. Its economic power has been declining for some time. It has in fact become a colossus with feet of clay.

Just as Spain went down in its day, so is the US in the process of going down presently. While the 16th century world witnessed the disintegration and downfall of feudalism, we are at present seeing the disintegration and decay of capitalism and an irresistible movement in the direction of socialism.

Just as those who in the 16th century in Spain and a few other European countries entertained the idea of a better world beyond feudalism were denounced as insane and sometimes literally burned alive, their modern counterparts are variously characterised by imperialism and its ideologues as dreamers, utopians and downright mad. At the same time, the imperialists themselves are busy destroying colossal amounts of wealth, torturing thousands of people in the dungeons set up by them in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo, and killing millions in their predatory wars. For all that, present-day imperialism will no more succeed than were the feudal ruling classes of yore in stopping the forward movement of history and the triumph of socialism.

Like Don Quixote, the knight of La Mancha, we have a burning hatred of injustice, cruelty, oppression and exploitation, but unlike him we do not seem to go back to a non-existent golden age. We look forward to a real bright future that life offers under the conditions of socialism, with its production planned to secure the needs of society and not to satisfy the greed of a few – a life free of want and war.

And like Don Quixote we possess the desire, willingness and ability to rise above the narrow horizons of the petty-bourgeois philistine who is forever frightened of burning his fingers, in order to fight for a far superior world than the one we live in.