By Bob Pitt
This article was written in 1996 in response to an attack on Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom by Morning Star journalist Jeff Sawtell. It was intended for one of the early issues of What Next? but was not published at the time. An edited version of Sawtell’s original piece from Communist Review is included here as an Appendix. The full article can be found on the Communist Party of Britain’s website.
I have long believed that it is wrong to refer to comrades from the official Communist movement (or what remains of it) as “Stalinists”. Aside from blocking discussion, it isn’t even an accurate description. These days, there are few members of the Communist Party of Britain (never mind the Democratic Left) who would defend the Moscow Trials, forced collectivisation or any of the other horrors of Stalin’s regime. Many of the myths of orthodox Stalinism were in any case demolished by Krushchev’s “secret speech” back in 1956. And more recently the collapse of the Soviet Union and the other “Communist” regimes in Eastern Europe has caused many CPers to further question the old certainties. After all, it is difficult to uncritically uphold the virtues of “actually existing socialism” when most of it has so dramatically ceased to actually exist.
But the impact of Stalinism on the Spanish Civil War is a subject that has remained immune to reassessment as far as most Communists are concerned. This is perhaps understandable, for the memory of Spain seems to offer them a solid rock amid all the present ideological confusion, and can be used to demonstrate the essentially healthy character of the official Communist tradition. Though usually conceding that their predecessors in the ’30s were mistaken in supporting Stalin’s atrocities in the Soviet Union, today’s Communists will point, not unreasonably, to the heroism and self-sacrifice that led many of their comrades to join the International Brigade and fight to defend the Spanish Republic against Franco, in many cases at the cost of their own lives. But the result is a quite staggering – and often willful – ignorance of the realities of the Spanish Civil War.
The article by Jeff Sawtell attacking Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom, recently published in the CPB’s theoretical journal Communist Review, is an extreme example of this.1 Comrade Sawtell is the film critic of the Morning Star, but whatever expertise he may possess in the field of cinematography certainly doesn’t extend to the historiography of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, despite the arrogant, know-it-all tone he adopts in the article and his inclusion of some obscure-looking footnotes to give the impression of erudition, it would seem that he has read precisely one publication on the subject – the 30-page pamphlet Spain Against Fascism, written by two old CPers, Nan Green and Alonso Elliott, and published by the CPGB’s History Group in its Our History series back in 1976.2 All Sawtell’s “facts”, statistics, quotations and references are lifted (without acknowledgement) from Green and Elliott’s work.
Sawtell starts off by attacking the description of Loach’s film as “A Story from the Spanish Revolution”. This, he tells us, is “a reference to the ‘socialist revolution’ which the anarchist-POUM alliance claimed to be waging against their erstwhile allies in the Republican government during the second year of the civil war, when the Republicans were trying to unite all the anti-fascist forces in a popular front against Franco and his German and Italian allies”.
It is evident that Sawtell has swallowed completely the myth that the Civil War was a straightforward battle between democracy and fascism, and that the unity of the Republican camp was undermined by ultra-leftists (the anarchists and the anti-Stalinist socialist party, the POUM) who refused to subordinate their revolutionary objectives to the more immediate requirement of building a broad popular alliance against Franco around the defence of parliamentary democracy.
The truth of the matter, however, is that the struggle of the Spanish workers did reach revolutionary proportions – not in the second year of the Civil War, when the revolution was in fact rolled back and eventually destroyed, but in 1936 – and it is this revolution to which the description of Land and Freedom refers. As the film so movingly demonstrates, this struggle was betrayed by counter-revolutionary forces within the Republican camp itself, the most consistent and ruthless of whom were the Communists.
From the very beginning of the Civil War, Stalin had expressed his total opposition to Republican Spain pursuing socialist polices that could damage his attempts to construct a diplomatic alliance with France and Britain against Nazi Germany. He had made it clear that Soviet aid to Spain, which Sawtell depicts as a selfless act of solidarity, was dependent on the Spanish government restricting its aims to the defence of a bourgeois republic. As for the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), although some of its leaders may have harboured doubts about the policies they were required to implement, in practice it obeyed its Comintern “advisers” and proved a willing tool of Soviet realpolitik.
For Jeff Sawtell’s benefit, let us outline a few elementary facts about Spanish politics in 1936-37. (Readers who, unlike Sawtell, possess some basic knowledge of the subject will be able to skip a lot of this.)
In February 1936 the parties of the Popular Front won a majority of seats in the elections to the Spanish parliament, the Cortes. The Popular Front had been formed with a very limited purpose – it was a temporary electoral alliance, designed to secure the defeat of the Right, and was emphatically not intended to establish a Popular Front government incorporating all the Republican parties, working class and bourgeois. The coalition that took office as a result of the Popular Front’s election victory was based purely on the bourgeois parties – the Republican Left, Republican Union and the Catalan nationalist party, the Esquerra. The Socialists, who had learned from their experiences as a junior partner in the Republican government of 1931-33, restricted themselves to voting with the government in the Cortes against the Right, and resisted attempts to incorporate them into the administration.
The election of this liberal bourgeois government lifted the repression that had descended on the Spanish labour movement following the defeat of the 1934 Asturian uprising. Thousands of working class militants who had been imprisoned were set free, and the class struggle took off in no uncertain terms, with a wave of industrial action by the anarchist and socialist trade unions (CNT and UGT) and mounting conflict in the agrarian areas, where the rural poor took up a struggle against the landlords, in some cases engaging in illegal land seizures.
In his study The Communist Movement, Fernando Claudín (a leader of the Communist youth during the Civil War) quotes the following illuminating passage from The Spanish Proletariat and the National Revolutionary War, by the Soviet historian K.L. Maidanik, which describes the response of the masses to the February election victory:
“they took control of the streets and, without waiting for the government’s decisons, began to implement the People’s Front programme from below, using revolutionary methods…. They released political prisoners, they compelled employers to re-engage workers they had dismissed for political reasons, and they began, in March 1936, to take over the land. In the middle of the same month began a wave of strikes caused by hunger, unemployment and Fascist provocation. The strike movement grew from month to month. Factories and workshops, mines and building-sites were paralysed, businesses closed down. In June and July an average of between ten and twenty strikes every day was recorded. There were days when the number of strikers amounted to 400,000 or 450,000. And 95 per cent of the strikes that took place between February and July 1936 were won by the workers. Great workers’ demonstrations marched through the streets, demanding bread, work, the suppression of Fascism and total victory for the revolution. The first collective enterprises were set up. Meetings of tens of thousands took place, at which workers applauded with enthusiasm speakers who announced that the end of capitalism was at hand and called on them to do as they did in Russia. From strikes the workers escalated to occupation of enterprises that their owners had closed down. Their occupation of the streets, of enterprises and estates, and their ceaseless strikes urged the proletariat of towns and country on towards the highest forms of political struggle.”3
The government was a bourgeois government, and was therefore scarcely neutral in the fight waged by the workers and rural poor against the capitalists and landlords – it was firmly on the side of the latter. But it was a liberal bourgeois government, and so it failed to crack down on the masses with the harshness demanded by the ruling classes. The result was a military conspiracy, ideologically inspired by traditional Catholic reaction rather than by fascism, which aimed to overthrow the government and impose an authoritarian regime that would suppress these mass struggles with the necessary ferocity. In July, the conspiracy culminated in a rebellion by the armed forces under the leadership of Generals Mola and Franco.
This threw the Republican government into a terminal crisis. The prime minister Casares Quiroga resigned and made way for Martínez Barrio, who phoned Mola to offer him a place in the government if he called off the uprising. Mola politely but firmly declined, and Martínez Barrio in his turn resigned to be replaced by José Giral, who finally (this was a week into the rebellion) agreed to distribute arms to the workers’ organisations.
From that point on, the Republican government in practice ceased to exist. Indeed, within the Republican zone the bourgeois state itself had collapsed. The official “bodies of armed men” had almost all gone over to the rebels, while control had passed into the hands of local committees, workers’ militias and other direct organs of power. And resistance to the armed rebellion was combined with an intensification of the class struggle that had developed in the cities and countryside since February, and which now took a directly revolutionary form.
Claudín again quotes the Soviet historian Maidanik, who argues that the response of the working class to the military rebellion: “marked the beginning of a qualitatively new stage in the Spanish revolution. The activity of the proletarian masses and their subjective outlook both support this conclusion. July-August 1936 saw settled, in fact, the basic problems of the revolution, those of political power and ownership of the instruments and means of production. Local authority passed, in practice, into the hands of the armed proletariat. Also into their hands, and to a lesser extent into the hands of the peasants, passed all the instruments and means of production belonging to the capitalists and landowners. A large part of the bourgeoisie and of its state machine was liquidated on the territory held by the Republic. All this went beyond the limits of a bourgeois-democratic revolution.”4
Claudín comments: “Indeed it did. But it had to be got back into those ‘limits’ if Soviet aid to the Spanish republic was to fit into the ‘limits’ of Soviet diplomacy. And the substantial team of Comintern representatives installed in Spain with the mission of supervising the work of the PCE, together with the no less substantial team of Soviet military and political advisers, set themselves with all the zeal at their command to carry through this difficult operation. It was extremely difficult, for it involved nothing less than pushing the proletarian revolution back within the bourgeois-democratic bounds from which it ‘should’ never have escaped…. One had to begin by denying the anti-bourgeois reality of the revolution, so that activity aimed at restoring bourgeois institutions might seem different from what it actually was.”5
The absurdity of the Communists’ insistence that no revolutionary situation existed in Spain was evident to contemporary observers. Franz Borkenau, for example, recounted his discussions with leading figures in the Comintern-affiliated United Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC) in the summer of 1936: “Really, people are sometimes surprising. Representative members of the PSUC express the opinion that there is no revolution at all in Spain…. I hinted at the fact that the workers were armed, that the administration had fallen into the hands of revolutionary committees … that both factories and estates were being expropriated and managed by their former hands. What was revolution if it was not that? I was told that I was mistaken ….”6
The revolutionary upsurge of July-August had raised point-blank the question of state power. The Republican government had effectively collapsed; what was to replace it? From an anarchist standpoint, of course, with the disintegration of a centralised state apparatus and the devolution of power to local mass organisations, the tasks of the “libertarian” revolution had been accomplished. But with the armed counter-revolution at the gates, it was self-evidently necessary to put together a government that could co-ordinate the resistance to Mola and Franco. What sort of government should it be?
The Communist Party and the Socialist right wing around Indalecio Prieto believed that the government should remain, as before, one made up exclusively of the bourgeois parties and supported by the workers’ movement from outside. But it proved impossible to resurrect an administration that had so conclusively demonstrated its impotence in July. Francisco Largo Caballero, general secretary of the UGT and leader of the Socialist Party’s left wing, initially inclined to the view that the Republic should be ruled by a junta based on the trade unions. This would have produced a de facto coalition government of the UGT and CNT, but without offending the anti-statist sensibilities of the anarchists by labelling it as such. The proposal had some merits. It would have brought to power a government based on and responsible to the mass workers’ organisations, which could have adopted the sort of programme – expropriation of the capitalists and landlords, freedom for the colonies – which opened up the prospect of victory.
However, the Soviet ambassador Marcel Rosenberg dissuaded Largo Caballero from this course of action. He urged the Socialist leader to form a government that included the bourgeois Republican parties, arguing that only if the Spaniards followed this course could the European democracies be persuaded to abandon their non-intervention policy (which prevented the Republic acquiring weapons to defend itself, while Germany and Italy broke the embargo by energetically arming Mola and Franco). Rosenberg also stated, employing a combination of bribery and blackmail, that if Largo Caballero followed his advice the Soviet government could see its way to circumventing the Non-Intervention Agreement (to which the Soviet Union was a signatory) and providing the Republic with arms. Caballero eventually succumbed to this pressure, although he still emphatically rejected any idea that the workers’ parties should form a minority in a bourgeois-dominated coalition government.
Thus the Popular Front government was born. Taking office in September 1936, with Largo Caballero as prime minister, it bore no resemblance to, and was certainly not a continuation of, the government elected in February. The composition of the new administration reflected, not the relative strengths of the parties in the Cortes, but the relationship of forces on the ground, with a handful of bourgeois ministers tacked on to give the impression of broadness.
By November, the Council of Ministers (the cabinet) had 18 members. The Socialists, who had 90 deputies in the post-February Cortes, got 6 places and the Communists 2, though their own representation in the Cortes had amounted to a mere 16 deputies. In addition the anarchists, who had swallowed their anti-political principles in the face the threat to the Republic and joined the government, had 4 ministers – not one of whom had been elected to parliament, needless to say, as the anarchists refused to contest elections. The bourgeois Republican parties – the Republican Left, Republican Union, Esquerra and Basque nationalists – that had formed the largest bloc in the Cortes (with 164 deputies between them) were allotted only 6 places. So the workers’ parties in the Popular Front government outnumbered the bourgeois Republican parties by two to one. This had little to do with the outcome of the February elections.
The Popular Front government was neither based upon, nor responsible to, any democratic body – not even an elected parliament. However, in a futile attempt to persuade France and Britain to lift the arms embargo, the government tried to maintain the pretence that the Republic was engaged in a struggle to defend a functioning parliamentary democracy, and every six months or so throughout the Civil War a meeting of the Cortes was convened. Having no power, it was no more than a piece of window-dressing intended to impress an international audience.
In November 1936, with Madrid under threat, the government withdrew to Valencia, where a meeting of this dummy Cortes was held. The POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista – Workers Party of Marxist Unification) published a report of the meeting in its paper La Batalla. Pointing out that the deputies had merely made speeches without being able to take any decisions, the paper dismissed the proceedings as a fraud. “The parody of the bourgeois parliament is continuing”, it stated.”The Madrid parliament must be buried!”7
A fair point, you might think. But how does Jeff Sawtell interpret this quotation? In all seriousness, he presents it as evidence that the POUM “encouraged a putsch against the Republicans”! Of course, it would be unfair to blame Sawtell personally for this nonsense. He is just parroting the claim in the Our History pamphlet that provides his sole source of information, where Green and Elliott themselves merely echo the allegation in the official PCE history Guerra y revolución en España.8 In their eagerness to denounce honest opponents of Stalinism, neither they nor Sawtell evidently found it necessary to examine the wider political context or even check the reference in La Batalla.
Once the Republican government in Madrid/Valencia – and the parallel Catalan administration in Barcelona, the Generalidad – had decided on the course of re-establishing the structures of the bourgeois state, the question arose – what was to be done about the revolutionary gains of July-August 1936 – all those workers’ committees, militias, agricultural collectives etc?
The division that emerged within the Republican camp was over the way to deal with this problem. On the one hand there were those who favoured a compromise with the various forms of direct power that had emerged over the summer of 1936, proposing to incorporate them into the structures of the new reconstituted (bourgeois) state or peacefully persuade them to dissolve. This was the position of the Socialist Left around Largo Caballero, and in practice that of the anarchist and the POUM leaderships also. On the other side were ranged the Socialist Right around Indalecio Prieto, the bourgeois Republican parties and (most emphatically of all) the Communists, who held that to re-establish an effective state authority the workers’ gains would have to be destroyed, by violence if necessary, and irrespective of the damage it caused to the unity of the Republican camp and to the war effort.
This conflict emerged most sharply in Catalonia, where the revolutionary process of July-August had developed furthest, and where the anarchists and the POUM had their stronghold. (The Catalan Communists, who had merged their tiny forces with those of the Socialists and other Catalan political groupings to form the PSUC, were at first comparatively weak.)
After the suppression of the military uprising in July, power in Catalonia effectively passed into the hands of the Central Anti-Fascist Militias Committee. But the Commitee was persuaded to cede its authority to a coalition government that included not only the anarchists, the POUM and the PSUC but also the Esquerra and other smaller bourgeois (or petit bourgeois) parties, under the continuing presidency of Esquerra leader Luis Companys. This was achieved with some difficulty, and the POUM leader Andrés Nin, who was minister of justice in the new Catalan government (he was ousted in December 1936 at the behest of the Communists), played a prominent role in persuading militants to accept the voluntary dissolution of the Anti-Fascist Militias Committee.
In the Catalan capital Barcelona the factories, communications and transport remained in the hands of the workers. Here a compromise was reached, and the workers’ committees were allowed to retain control, while the government had the right to appoint its own representative to every committee. The anarchist-dominated “control patrols” which had been organised to defend security after the defeat of the military uprising also remained in existence, forming a parallel organisation to the PSUC-controlled official police force.
For the Communists, along with their bourgeois and right-wing social-democratic allies, this was an intolerable situation. The Communist, Comorera, as minister of justice set out to dissolve the control patrols, provoking fierce resistance from the anarchist rank and file. By the spring of 1937, tension between the Communist-bourgeois alliance and the anarchist-influenced working class of the city had become explosive. The murder on 25 April of Catalan UGT leader and PSUC member Roldán Cortada (of which more later) aggravated the situation still further. Cortada’s funeral was turned by the Communists into a political demonstration against the CNT. Thousands of armed assault guards paraded through the workers’ quarters of Barcelona, shouting abuse and threats at the anarchists, in what was rightly seen by the inhabitants as a blatant attempt at intimidation.
Of particular concern to the Stalinist-bourgeois counter-revolutionaries was the continuing existence of workers’ control of communications in Catalonia. The Barcelona telephone exchange, the Telefónica, was under the control of a workers’ committee dominated by the CNT (although the UGT was also represented on it). This enabled the workers to listen in on, and occasionally rudely interrupt, discussions between the Companys administration and the government in Valencia. The Communists therefore moved to take control of the Telefónica (and also two other telephone exchanges in Tarragona and Tortosa, to the south of the Catalan capital).
On the afternoon of 3 May, the chief of the police in Barcelona, PSUC member Eusebio Rodríguez Salas, arrived at the Telefónica with three truckloads of police, intent on taking over the building. “That seemed a provocation”, the historian Hugh Thomas observes, “since the anarchist committee’s control of the Telefónica was ‘legal’, according to the Generalidad’s own decree on collectivization.”9 The police took control of the ground floor, but on the first floor workers offered armed resistance to this illegal occupation.
Augustin Souchy, who was present in Barcelona at the time, describes the consequences of this Stalinist provocation:
“… word of the assault spread in the square, and soon after, throughout the city. It was as though a match had been set to gunpowder. The workers of Barcelona, belonging to the CNT in an overwhelming majority, feared that this might be only the beginning of still further actions against their rights…. Workers and police ran about excitedly in every section of the city. The union headquarters were full of people. Everybody wanted arms. Everybody wanted to be ready to defend other buildings from similar assaults. Perhaps, at some other time, this assault upon the telephone building might not have had such consequences. But the accumulation of political conflicts during the past few months had made the atmosphere tense. It was impossible to stem the indignation of the masses.
“A few hours later, the entire city of Barcelona was in arms…. The police were concentrated near the police prefecture. The Catalan Minister of the Interior, Artemio Aiguadé, was with the police, and behind the whole action. With him were the masses of the armed Catalan Nationalists (Estat Catalá), and the militants of the PSUC. Armed troops were also concentrated in the outer districts of Barcelona. It became clear to all that they were trying to organise a putsch against the CNT and the FAI.”10
When it was discovered that Rodríguez Salas had acted under authorisation from Aiguadé, an Esquerra member who was close to the Communists, and without the Catalan prime minister José Tarradellas being informed, the CNT and the POUM raised the demand for the sacking of Salas and Aiguadé. Commentators, from the anarchist Augustin Souchy to the Spanish President Manuel Azaña, are agreed that if this demand had been accepted the immediate crisis could have been resolved peacefully. But Companys, urged on by the Communists, refused to compromise.
And how does Sawtell summarise these events? He describes the street-fighting as an “attempted insurrection or putsch by … self-styled ‘revolutionary’ forces”, who were supposedly “trying to wrest Barcelona – a major military and industrial complex with access to the sea – from the camp of the Republicans”. He tell us that: “On May 2 [sic – like everything else in Sawtell’s account, the mistaken date is taken from Green and Elliott], the government forces appealed to the putschists occupying the telephone exchange in Barcelona [i.e. the legally constituted control committee11] to lay down their arms. They refused, demanding the immediate resignation of the government and the dissolution of the armed forces of the Catalan government”!
Fearing that armed conflict within the Republican camp would open the door to Franco, the CNT leaders did their best to broker a compromise and urged the rank and file to lay down their arms and return to work. But the PSUC and their bourgeois allies were intent on prolonging the confrontation with the aim of crushing working class resistance, and unlike the CNT leaders felt no contraints about destroying the unity of the Republican camp. Every time a ceasefire was agreed, the Stalinist-bourgeois forces used the opportunity to strengthen their positions and then launch further attacks.
As for Sawtell’s citation of Franco’s claim that “the street fighting had been started by his agents” (again, Sawtell is merely quoting from the Green/Elliott pamphlet), this makes no mention of which side the “agents” were on. Given the role of the PSUC in provoking the conflict and their sabotage of attempts by the CNT leaders to peacefully resolve the situation, it would make sense to look for fascist agents in the Stalinists’ own ranks. In fact, however, all the conditions were present in Barcelona for the outbreak without having recourse to agent-hunting.
Sawtell himself concedes that the anarchist leaders repeatedly called on their members to leave the streets and return to work. Who, then, organised the building of barricades and the armed defence of workers’ quarters and buildings against the Stalinist-bourgeois forces? Sawtell, with his usual disregard for historical accuracy, states: “Most of the actions were … co-ordinated by the extreme anarchist group the Friends of Durutti and the POUMists.” But the POUM, as a Marxist party, exercised a very limited influence over the CNT rank and file. And the Friends of Durutti were a small organisation on the fringes of the anarchist movement, whose semi-Marxist slogans (e.g. their call for the formation of a “revolutionary junta”) carried little weight with CNT members. No historian has ever claimed that the POUM or the Friends of Durruti were responsible for co-ordinating the mass movement that broke out in response to the occupation of the Telefónica.
The author of a study of the Friends of Durutti, recently published in an English translation, gives a balanced assessment of this mass movement: “We can speak of a spontaneous backlash by the Barcelona working class, if we regard as such the initiative shown by the middle ranking cadres of the CNT, as well as the fact that there already existed significant militant organization among the CNT rank and file, in the shape of the district defense committes and the control patrols. Similarly, we can speak of a spontaneous backlash, if we bear in mind that at no time did an order go out from the CNT leadership, or from the leadership of any other party, before mobilization occurred and barricades were thrown up all around the city.”12
Particularly risible is Sawtell’s complaint that: “Loach might have mentioned that the POUMists were responsible for assassinating trade union leaders like Roldán Cortada and Antonio Sesé before and during their attempted putsch.” Well, I suppose Loach might have mentioned this, but given that the POUM’s involvement in these two deaths is a complete invention, perhaps it is understandable that he did not do so!
The murder of Roldán Cortada, in particular, is a well-known episode in the history of the Spanish Civil War, the details of which would be familiar to anyone who had a passing acquaintance with the basic literature. Unfortunately, as we have already noted, this excludes comrade Sawtell. Basing himself exclusively on Green and Elliott’s pamphlet, which claims, in the context of a general denunciation of the POUM, that Roldán Cortada “was assassinated”, Sawtell leaps to the conclusion that the POUM was responsible for Cortada’s death.
The facts are that Roldán Cortada was shot while travelling by car through the anarchist stronghold of Molins de Llobregat. A number of leading local anarchists were arrested and charged with the murder, although no convincing evidence was produced against them and when the case eventually came to court all of the accused were acquitted.13 Nevertheless, Cortada’s death provided a pretext for the Stalinists to escalate their denunciations of “uncontrollables” – those rank and file anarchists who resisted the destruction of the gains of July-August 1936 – and to turn Cortada’s funeral into the intimidatory demonstration referred to above.
It is worth noting that Cortada himself, although a member of the PSUC, was no paid-up Stalinist. He had originally been a leading figure in the CNT, and in 1931 was one of the treintistas – the thirty signatories to an open letter that opposed the elitism and substitutionism of the FAI and argued that the liberation of the working class could not be accomplished without the active involvement of the masses. After his resulting expulsion from the CNT, Cortada had become a member of the Socialist Party, and a supporter of Largo Caballero, before the Catalan organisation of the party had fused with the local Communists and others to form the PSUC.
Signficantly, Roldán Cortada was known to be an opponent of the mounting attacks by the Stalinists on their rivals in the Catalan workers’ movement. In an obituary of Cortada published in La Batalla, the POUMist Ramón Magre, who had known Cortada well when they were both in the CNT, recalled a chance meeting with his former comrade in the street near the POUM headquarters a few days before Cortada’s death. In response to Magre’s criticisms of the Stalinists’ disgraceful polemics against the POUM, who were accused of being agents of Franco, Cortada had replied that it was the responsibility of one section of the PSUC (i.e the Stalinists) and that “many of us are not in agreement with this inexplicable campaign”.14
Of course, we have no proof as to who in fact killed Roldán Cortada. But on the principle of “who profits?”, the finger surely points at the Stalinists themselves. The death of Cortada not only served as a justification for stepping up attacks on the CNT, but also conveniently removed a potential obstacle to the purge of the PSUC’s opponents on the left. Given Cortada’s reservations about the Stalinist propaganda campaign against the POUM, he could hardly be relied upon to accept without complaint the illegalisation and destruction of a socialist party, many of whose leaders he knew personally. Certainly, there was a general suspicion on the left at the time that Cortada had been murdered by his own comrades.15
As for the POUM itself, the only accusation levelled at them by the PSUC in April 1937 was that they had tried to dissuade militiamen at the Lenin barracks from attending Cortada’s funeral – a charge that the POUM vehemently rejected.16 At that time, not even the most hardened Stalinist attempted to pin responsibility for Cortada’s assassination on the POUM. For that particular slander we had to wait almost another sixty years, until Sawtell composed his ignorant diatribe against Land and Freedom.
The later killing of Catalan UGT general secretary and PSUC member Antonio Sesé is another well documented event. It occurred on 6 May during the street fighting in Barcelona, when the car in which Sesé was travelling was fired on. Who was responsible? The PCE accused “Trotskyist agents in the service of Franco”, by which of course they meant the POUM. Not entirely consistently, they also blamed the anarchists, although that allegation had rather more credibility, as Sesé’s car had been passing a CNT barricade at the time of the shooting. However, the anarchists themselves denied any responsibility for Sesé’s death, publishing an extended defence in their daily paper Solidaridad Obrera, complete with a street map demonstrating that the fatal shot had in fact come from the direction of a PSUC barricade.17 So it seems more than possible that Sesé, like Cortada before him, was in fact killed by his own side – though in Sesé’s case the shooting would presumably have been accidental.
Sawtell has evident difficulty getting his story straight. He assures us that the POUM and CNT militias on Aragon front were not “denied weapons, they had the same weapons as every other regiment”. Yet, in the same paragraph, he quotes an anarchist writer to the effect that the CNT in Barcelona retained large quantities of arms, and demands indignantly: “Surely, they didn’t expect to be given more bullets to aim at the back of the anti-fascist front?” So, according to Sawtell, the POUM/CNT divisions were not deprived of arms for political reasons – and, at the same time, he accepts that they were, and tries to justify this with slanders.
George Orwell, in his Homage to Catalonia, dealt with the claim that the CNT held weapons in the rear: “Everyone knew that both the Anarchists and the PSUC were hoarding arms, and when the fighting broke out in Barcelona this was made clearer still; both sides produced arms in abundance. The Anarchists were well aware that even if they surrendered their arms, the PSUC, politically the main power in Catalonia, would still retain theirs; and this in fact was what happened after the fighting was over.”18
As far as the POUM was concerned, answering a claim by the Daily Worker that the party was in possession of “scores of machine-guns and several thousand rifles”, Orwell gave his own estimate of the arms which were held by the POUM in Barcelona – “about eighty rifles, a few bombs, and no machine-guns; i.e. about sufficient for the armed guards which, at that time, all the political parties placed on their buildings”.19 Given that Orwell fought with the POUM militia, and also on the barricades in Barcelona during the May Days, you might suppose that he was rather better informed about these matters than someone whose knowledge of the events is restricted to the reading of a single pamphlet.
Again following Green and Elliott, Sawtell wheels out the old charge that POUM and anarchist regiments deserted the front during the May Days and tried to march on Barcelona “but were persuaded by a combination of the Republican airforce and armed peasants to retreat”. This is an accusation that was made at the time in the Communist press, and has since been given credence by some historians – even by Pierre Broué and Émile Témime in their book The Revolution and Civil War in Spain.20 In a later assessment, however, Broué wrote the following: “Barcelona was vibrating with rumours. The 29th Division, commanded by the Anarchist Jover, and the 26th, under the POUMist Rovira, were forbidden to march on the capital. In fact these commanders had thought of doing so, but were dissuaded by their organisations.”21
This is confirmed by a German Brandlerite who fought with the POUM militia on the Aragon front. He recalls that, both at the time of the May Days, and subsequently during the suppression of the POUM, “a large part of the milicianos wanted to rush, arms in hand, to help the hard-pressed revolutionary workers in the rear, and it was hard to convince them that such a step would have had incalculable consequences for the anti-Fascist cause at the front. But once they accepted this argument, their revolutionary discipline was such that they stayed at the front, despite the fact that the Republican government, on account of the milicianos’ discipline, could now massacre their beloved party in the rear. There can be no more poignant testimony than this to the sublime revolutionary and anti-Fascist devotion of the POUM militias”.22
When Largo Caballero refused to accept Stalinist demands for the suppression of the POUM, the Communists combined with the Socialist Right and the bourgeois Republican parties to drive him out of the government along with the anarchists. (So much for Sawtell’s claim that the Communists’ attitude toward the Republican government was one of “always insisting that it should represent a broad array of forces, including the anarchists”.) On 16 June the new government under Juan Negrín illegalised the POUM, and unleashed a wave of repression against the left. One of the victims was POUM leader Andrés Nin, who was murdered after refusing to confess to being a fascist spy, despite suffering the most horrible tortures at the hands of the Soviet security service, the NKVD. All of this is well established.
Not as far as comrade Sawtell is concerned, though. He complains that: “During the debate around the film some leftist critics have mentioned the fact that the POUM leader Andrés Nin had been ‘murdered’ by ‘Stalinist agents’.” (One of these “leftist critics” was yours truly, who clashed with Sawtell in the letters column of our local paper, the Camden New Journal.23) Sawtell will have none of it. “Allegations that Nin was murdered by ‘the Communists’ or agents of the Soviet State Security Department (NKVD)”, he blithely informs us, “have never been substantiated. But these are indicative of the hysterical anti-Communism and anti-Sovietism that seeks to prevent any serious investigation of the events. It is not inconceivable that Nin did perish – we only know that he disappeared – wars tend to produce such atrocities.”
Yet again, Sawtell only succeeds in displaying his own ignorance. The role of the NKVD in Nin’s assassination was revealed as far back as 1953 in Yo fuí un ministro de Stalin, the memoirs of Jesús Hernández who, as a leader of the PCE during the Civil War and a minister in the Popular Front government, was in a position to know the score. More recently, Hernández’s account has been confirmed almost to the letter by documents now available to researchers in the NKVD archives, which are quoted at length by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev in their book Deadly Illusions.24 I have reproduced the relevant passages from Hernández’s book in the pamphlet How the NKVD Framed the POUM, with an introduction summarising the evidence produced by Costello and Tsarev.
Sawtell is particularly indignant at Land and Freedom’s suggestion that International Brigaders were involved in the repression of the left that followed the Mays Days: “Loach depicts the brigaders as part of the force sent in against the anarchists. This was not true. The International Brigade played no part at all in suppressing the Barcelona putsch.”
But the heroism of the volunteers who went to fight in Spain cannot alter the fact that the International Brigade was no more independent of Soviet Stalinism and its politics than the PCE was. The Trotskyist militant Manuel Casanova (Mieczyslaw Bortenstein), while paying tribute to the courage of those who joined the International Brigade, makes the following points about them:
“Kept in ignorance, and only having the Stalinist press, the Communist leadership shut them up like a sealed vessel. Occasionally it would make use of them for the most sordid and repugnant ends. The assassination of several revolutionary militants and some ignoble provocations were the work of several of the political Commissars of the International Brigades. In May 1937 they served as a shock brigade, a reliable force, because they carried out blindly all that was asked of them. Several of the Assault Guards who came from Valencia to Barcelona on 7 May 1937 in order to make ‘order’ prevail there against the CNT and POUM workers, and several of the tank men, spoke Bulgarian, German, Polish or Serbian. I met some good militants in these detachments, who were already known to me from abroad, helping the bourgeoisie and reaction. ‘And we forgive them their trespasses, as God will forgive ours.’ They knew not what they were doing.”25
Members of the International Brigade were directly implicated in murder of Andrés Nin. After Nin had refused to make a false confession, and faced with the problem of covering up the appalling tortures the POUM leader had suffered at the hands of NKVD general Alexander Orlov, it was the Italian International Brigader Vittorio Vidali who, according to Hernández’s account, organised a group of German brigaders masquerading as fascists to raid the prison where Nin was held and “liberate” him. Nin was then killed and his mutilated body buried somewhere along the road between Alcalá de Henares and Perales de Tajuña.26
Regarding the repression directed against the POUM’s own foreign fighters, Sawtell tells us blandly that “the small volunteer force from the Independent Labour Party in Britain left for their respective homes”. In fact, as Orwell details in Homage to Catalonia, the ILP volunteers were subject to the same persecution as the rest of the POUM. Bob Smillie, son of the Scottish miners’ leader, was arrested and died in prison, apparently due to a failure by his jailers to get him medical treatment for appendicitis. Orwell himself was forced to go on the run, along with others including Staff Cottman, a Young Communist League member from Bristol who acted as an adviser on Land and Freedom and on whom the central character in the film is loosely based. They barely escaped with their lives.
Hugh Thomas writes that the attacks on the POUM “were acts of barbarity carried out in Spain by Spanish and foreign communists at the behest of the republic’s only, and over powerful, ally, Russia”. Regarding Nin’s torture and murder, he states that “the crime reverberates through the years, as do all the contemporaneous crimes in Russia”.27 Unfortunately, the reverberations have yet to reach Jeff Sawtell.
The May Days in Barcelona were the pivot around which the political situation in Republican Spain swung violently to the right. From then on the Civil War became, in Hugh Thomas’s phrase, “the war of two counter revolutions”.28 The Negrín government allowed the Stalinists a free hand to crush their opponents on the left, and thousands of anarchists and POUMists were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and murdered. What remained of workers’ control was abolished and agricultural collectives were broken up (so much for Sawtell’s statement that “collectivisation and socialisation were the policies of the Communists”), while politically unreliable Republican regiments originating in the militias were dissolved and their commanders arrested. As for Jeff Sawtell’s assertion that “any divisions among the anti-fascist forces at that time would have proved ultimately disastrous”, this can only be regarded as an exercise in unconscious irony stemming from his almost laughable political ignorance.
“There have been a million and one crimes committed in the name of Communism”, Sawtell concludes. “The defeat of the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil war was not one of them.” There were of course a number of reasons for Franco’s victory in 1939. But the role of Stalinism in destroying the democratic gains of July-August 1936, and bloodily crushing those left-wing forces in the Spanish workers’ movement who tried to defend them, was a major contributory factor in the Republic’s defeat. Even an honest liberal historian like Hugh Thomas was forced to recognise the reality of this Stalinist repression. It is time that comrades from the official Communist tradition woke up to it as well.
1. Jeff Sawtell, “Loach, Land and Freedom”, Communist Review, Summer 1996.
2. Nan Green and A.M. Elliott, Spain Against Fascism 1936-39 (Our History No.67), 1976.
3. Fernando Claudín, The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform, 1975, pp.216-7.
4. Ibid., p.224.
5. Ibid., pp.224-5.
6. Franz Borkenau, The Spanish Cockpit, 1937, p.110.
7. La Batalla, 2 December 1936.
8. Green and Elliott, Spain Against Fascism, pp.20-1; Dolores Ibárruri et al., Guerra y Revolución en España 1936-1939, Vol.3, p.71.
9. Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, 1990, p.654.
10. Augustin Souchy, “The Tragic Week in May”, in Souchy et al., The May Days in Barcelona 1937, 1987, pp.30-1. The Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) was the anarchist vanguard organisation, as distinct from the mass anarcho-syndicalist industrial organisation, the CNT.
11. Earlier Sawtell had written (Camden New Journal, 26 October 1995): “The anarchist-POUM alliance tried to disrupt vital communications by occupying the telephone exchange in Barcelona.” The elementary fact that the workers’ committee controlling the Telefónica had done so since July 1936, and was a legally recognised body, is a closed book to comrade Sawtell.
12. Agustin Guillamón, The Friends of Durruti Group: 1937-1939, 1996, p.48. The role of the CNT defence committees, in particular, in co-ordinating the mass resistance is stressed by other writers. See, for example, Souchy, p.31.
13. José Peirats, Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, 1990, pp.208-10.
14. La Batalla, 27 April 1937.
15. Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, pp.653-4.
16. La Batalla, 2 May 1937.
17. Solidaridad Obrera, 9 May 1937.
18. George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, 1966, p.151.
19. Ibid., p.159.
20. Pierre Broué and Émile Témime, The Revolution and Civil War in Spain, 1972, p.284. Bill Alexander, the secretary of the International Brigade Association, utilises this reference by “historians generally sympathetic to the POUM position” to counter George Orwell’s statement that no POUM units left the front: see his essay “George Orwell and Spain”, in Christopher Norris, ed., Inside the Myth, 1984, p.92.
21. Pierre Broué, “The ‘May Days’ in Barcelona”, Revolutionary History, Vol.1, No.2, 1988.
22. A Brandlerite Militant, “Three Months on the Huesca Front (April-June 1937)”, in The Spanish Civil War: The View From the Left (Revolutionary History, Vol.4, Nos.1/2), 1992, p.289.
23. Camden New Journal, 12, 19, 26 October, 2 November 1995. I concluded this correspondence by challenging comrade Sawtell to a public debate, an offer which he failed to take me up on.
24. John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, Deadly Illusions, 1993, pp.287-92.
25. Mieczyslaw Bortenstein (M. Casanova), “Spain Betrayed: How the Popular Front Opened the Gates to Franco”, in The Spanish Civil War: The View From the Left, p.153.
26. Jesús Hernández, How the NKVD Framed the POUM, 1996, pp.5, 23-4.
27. Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, pp.708-9.
28. Ibid., Book Four. It should be noted that this, the third edition of Thomas’s book, is substantially revised, and in contrast to the first two editions takes on board many of the points made by anti-Stalinists.
From Jeff Sawtell, “Loach, Land and Freedom”, Communist Review, Summer 1996
Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom … purports to be about, or at least set in, the years of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. In it, Loach launches an insidious attack on the reputation of the popular forces that fought on the side of the elected Republican government against the forces of Franco fascism.
Derek Malcolm described the film as “a Trotskyite version of history during the thirties”.1 It was dismissed by the veteran Spanish Civil War journalist Martha Gellhorn as “dull … unconvincing and filled with absurdities and dogma”.2
The film supposedly tells a tale about a Liverpool Communist, played by Ian Hart, who became so disillusioned with the “betrayals of Stalinism” in Spain – close-focus tearing up his Communist party card in a fit of rage – that he converted to the ranks of the super-revolutionary faction known as the POUM or the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification).
Like some ancient relic of the Cold War, Loach dubbed the whole of the Republican government as merely pawns in an international Communist conspiracy. And, to add insult to his injury, he dismisses the heroic International Brigade as nothing but jack-booted stooges of Stalin.
What happened, where was Loach’s celebrated objectivity? Had Loach taken leave of his senses or is it simply a reflection of his loyalty to his scriptwriter, Jim Allen? Or, even more ominous, does the film simply confirm Loach and Allen’s return to the sectarian politics that marred such films as Days of Hope?
On closer inspection of the publicity material, Land and Freedom is more specifically subtitled “A story from the Spanish Revolution”. For the uninitiated, this is a reference to the “socialist revolution” which the anarchist-POUM alliance claimed to be waging against their erstwhile allies in the Republican government during the second year of the civil war, when the Republicans were trying to unite all the anti-fascist forces in a popular front against Franco and his German and Italian allies – principally in the defence of Madrid.
The POUM newspaper La Batalla encouraged a putsch against the Republicans – “The parody of the bourgeois parliament is continuing…. The Madrid parliament must be buried”.3 On May 2, the government forces appealed to the putschists occupying the telephone exchange in Barcelona to lay down their arms. They refused, demanding the immediate resignation of the government and the dissolution of the armed forces of the Catalan government.
On May 11 the Nazi Ambassador to Franco wrote to the German Foreign Minister, “the street fighting had been started by his (Franco’s) agents”.4
Naturally. Loach depicts the brigaders as part of the force sent in against the anarchists. This was not true. The International Brigade played no part at all in suppressing the Barcelona putsch. Neither did the brigade wear bright new uniforms and polished cavalry boots as shown in the film.
On the other hand, Loach might have mentioned that the POUMists were responsible for assassinating trade union leaders like Roldán Cortada and Antonio Sesé‚ before and during their attempted putsch, which resulted in 500 dead and over 1000 wounded. Although some commentators have claimed the casualties were much higher. And they might have been had not the leadership of the CNT, the main anarchist workers’ federation, called on the mass of their members to return to work. Most of the actions were, therefore, co-ordinated by the extreme anarchist group, the Friends of Durutti, and the POUMists.
The attempted insurrection or putsch by these self-styled “revolutionary” forces, in trying to wrest Barcelona – a major military and industrial complex with access to the sea – from the camp of the Republicans at the height of the war, resulted in them being routed. The last thing the revolution needed was for Catalonia to be turned into a state of catatonia. Only days before, April 27-28, the Nazi Condor Legion had bombed Guernica in a major offensive against the Basques.
One might think that the two actions had been co-ordinated. The Communist movement at the time certainly thought so. Loach highlights a front page of the Daily Worker which says as much. Fortunately, the two military divisions sent by POUM and the CNT from the Aragon front to aid their comrades were persuaded by a combination of the Republican airforce and armed peasants to retreat. Some of their leaders were arrested for treachery with the more extreme elements of their rank and file being decommissioned. Some were executed, some went into hiding and a few possibly joined the ranks of the Republicans. Others, like the small volunteer force from the Independent Labour Party in Britain, left for their respective homes.
Later in the film, Loach includes a US brigader – no doubt because we are supposed to associate an American accent with imperialism – in the ranks of those sent to arrest the POUMists. Again, this was a lie. For Loach and his scriptwriter Jim Allen, it was obviously necessary to directly associate the brigade with the other Republicans, to illustrate that they were observing the Moscow line.
According to them, the Soviet Union was not just intent on selling out the world socialist revolution, but actively working in collusion with international capitalism to sabotage any other potential revolution. This presumably is the reason for including the rather farcical debate about collectivisation in the film, in which the US brigader (again) voices opposition – correctly asserting that full-scale collectivisation at that particular time would divide the agricultural workers from the rich peasants and them from the peasantry. Any divisions amongst the anti-fascist forces at that time would have proved ultimately disastrous.
The Republicans were not opposed to collectivisation as a principle. In fact they had enthusiastically encouraged it, until the policy jeopardised the fragile unity of the popular front. There is nothing more calculated to upset a hungry people than starvation. If the peasants had moved to support Franco, that is precisely what would have happened. Collectivisation and socialisation were the policies of the Communists also, but they didn’t maintain the policy as a dogma, especially when it hampered unity within the anti-fascist forces.
The last thing the “Stalinists” wanted, according to the POUMist fantasy, was for a “real socialist alternative” to rear its head – especially in Spain, where a victory for the anarcho-POUMist alliance against the combined might of fascism, capitalism and international “Stalinism” was supposed to provide the much needed spark necessary to reignite the world revolution that the Soviets had been intent on throttling since Lenin had disagreed with Trotsky earlier in the century.
To stand by such a perspective today, one would have to believe that the Cold War had never taken place, that the US didn’t consider the USSR as the “evil empire”, that every NATO resource available had not been employed in bringing down the first workers’ state (including dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the first act of the Cold War).
As for the charge that the POUM/CNT had been denied weapons, they had the same weapons as every other regiment, including the active forces fighting at the front. Yet, these self-styled revolutionaries hoarded what arms they had been assigned … in order to attack the Republican forces in Barcelona. After the criminal debacle in Barcelona, the anarchist leader Abad de Santillan continued to boast: “There remained in the hands of the population of the libertarian tendency bombs in unlimited numbers, machine guns and even artillery.”<sup5< sup=””> Surely, they didn’t expect to be given more bullets to aim at the back of the anti-fascist front?</sup5<>
During the debate around the film some leftist critics have mentioned the fact that the POUM leader Andrés Nin had been “murdered” by “Stalinist agents”. The POUM had signed the Popular Front pact in January 1936 and Nin joined the government. It matters not that they were later removed from the government. So were many other left-wingers, including Communists, when the Republicans were trying to create a more popular base and win support of peasants who had been frightened off by the tactics being employed by the POUM and the anarchists.
As members of an anti-fascist front, these “revolutionaries” owed it to their allies to observe military discipline. It wasn’t a kid’s game in the schoolyard, throwing bricks at each other, people were dying. Although, you might think they were playing war games given their childish antics as described in the film – dashing about in red bandanas, causing comrades to be killed and taking compassionate leave whenever they felt like it. By turning their backs on their comrades and trying to organise their own agenda, they were committing treason. Any army anywhere would have had them shot. How might they have fared during the Russian Revolution had they tried to upset the Red Army while it was under Trotsky’s charge? One can’t imagine him tolerating such behaviour.
Allegations that Nin was murdered by “the Communists” or agents of the Soviet State Security Department (NKVD) have never been substantiated. But these are indicative of the hysterical anti-Communism and anti-Sovietism that seeks to prevent any serious investigation of the events. It is not inconceivable that Nin did perish – we only know that he disappeared – wars tend to produce such atrocities.
As for the film’s charge that the USSR failed to supply military solidarity, this is a nonsense. After repeated vain attempts to force the Non-Intervention Committee to thwart German and Italian Intervention on behalf of the Franco regime, the Soviets decided to aid the Spanish Republic. Apart from 2000-odd volunteers, they provided the Republic with 457,904 tons of goods valued at some 92,440,000 roubles. And this was during a time when imperialism was doing everything to undermine the young Soviet state. Dispatching goods under the most arduous conditions, which resulted in Soviet ships being attacked 86 times – three ships being sunk and four being captured – they also granted the Republic credit to the value of 85 million dollars. One of the great events of the Madrid front was the appearance of the 1-15 and 1-16 fighter planes piloted by Soviet volunteers. And Soviet tanks and artillery took part in every major battle. They sent some 772 airmen, 351 tankmen, 74 military experts, 77 navy personnel, 100 artillerymen, 130 engineers, 150 communication workers, and 204 interpreters. One in six died and only after the Republicans asked foreign volunteers to withdraw did the remainder leave. Material help included some 806 aircraft, 362 tanks, 120 armoured cars, 1,555 artillery pieces, 15,113 machine guns, 500,000 rifles, 340 mortars, over 110,000 bombs, 3,400,000 shells, 862,000 rounds of ammunition, 500,000 grenades, 1,500 tons of explosives, torpedo boats, anti-aircraft searchlights and many lorries, cars and thousands of gallons of fuel.6 In addition to arms and men, the Soviets also sent considerable quantities of food goods, clothing and other essentials. Which was a minor miracle considering that France deliberately held up Soviet aid through their borders.
The Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri, who inspired the slogan ¡No Pasarán! that is used by POUM in the film, paid tribute to the Soviet Union which had “expressed real determination to help the Spanish people and their government in the hard struggle with fascism”.7
As for the contribution of the International Brigade, it has been estimated that of the over 40,000 volunteers there were no fewer than 17,000 men in Spain at any one time, with some 6,000 involved in any single campaign. Of the 2,400-odd British volunteers, some 526 were killed. More were maimed and some suffered in Franco’s concentration camps.
Others went on to fight against the Nazis. And many have been active in all manner of revolutionary actions throughout the world. None could be accused of collaborating with fascism.
Space does not permit listing the many fine Communists who died in Spain, but amongst them were poets like John Cornford, writers like Ralph Fox and Christopher Caudwell and artists like Alicia Browne (although she was in Spain when the war broke out).
If Loach and his pals had read Cornford’s letters from the front, they would have learnt that Cornford, who had joined the POUM on the quiet Aragon front, left them because of enforced inactivity to help form the International Brigade. He fought valiantly in defence of Madrid and was killed by machine gunners in Cordoba.
George Orwell also claimed he was bored by the inactivity on the Aragon front. He only left after he was wounded by a stray bullet, and then travelled to London to write his Homage to Catalonia. Yet even Orwell recognised that, without the Communists, the Republican forces were hardly likely to win against the combined might of the fascists.
The international celebrities that supported the Republican cause are legion, including the likes of Picasso, Pablo Neruda, Paul Robeson, Charlie Chaplin and Ernest Hemingway. Land and Freedom is an insult to their memory as well as a shameful slur on all those who sacrificed much to provide financial and material support to the Republican cause in the international Aid Spain committees. The idea of a Communist tearing up his party card is simply ludicrous. On the contrary, the actions of the Communists in Spain encouraged many hundreds of comrades to join the Communist Party of Great Britain.
In Spain many thousands took out party cards. In fact, in Catalonia, where the Communists were running behind the anarchists before 1936, they increased their membership, becoming the largest left organisation. The events in Barcelona in 1937 encouraged this shift of allegiances. Yet, even then, the Communists in Spain never sought to use their majority to take over the Republican government, always insisting that it should represent a broad array of forces, including the anarchists.
Only after the defeat, with the Republican leadership in exile, did the Communists go it alone, continuing the fight as best they could in clandestine conditions. The legacy of their struggle was subsequently reflected in the support they received in the first elections after Franco’s death. Obviously, Loach and his pals would have supported one of the many insignificant leftist groupings that continue to plague Spanish politics. They would most certainly have had the support of international finance capital as they always have done.
Loach should be asking why it is that his financial backers, the BBC and the European Co-production Fund (UK), are prepared to lay out so much money to ensure that history is rewritten to reflect the interests of the establishment. There have been a million and one crimes committed in the name of Communism. The defeat of the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War was not one of them. This is a big lie worthy of Goebbels himself. The Republican forces were indeed defeated by an unholy alliance, that of the capitalist states, the fascist states, the treacherous Spanish military and the splitting activities of the 57 varieties of ultra-leftism.
Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won both the International Critics and the Ecumenical prize, Land and Freedom has been feted in Britain by all the posh papers as a cinematic triumph, even to being described as Loach’s “best film” and the “best British film in a decade”. But, for some reason, they failed to record their votes and nominate the film for the Critics’ Circle Award in 1996. They much preferred Michael Radford’s extraordinary Il Postino, despite its sympathy for Pablo Neruda’s Communist politics.
For many of those who had taken part in the Spanish Civil War, including survivors of the heroic International Brigade, Land and Freedom represented a betrayal and an insult. The secretary of the International Brigade Association, Bill Alexander – who was also the last commander of the British section of the International Brigade – summed up their feelings:
“I left the film angry and frustrated that Ken Loach’s abilities and large resources have been so misused. It is more than a very distorted picture of the reality of Spain. It obscures and falsifies the lessons from that struggle which are as true and relevant today as in 1936.”8
Alexander, who has spent his whole life in the anti-fascist movement, is naturally talking about the need for all democrats to transcend their sectarian interests and unite together if they are to halt the cancerous spread of narrow nationalism and rabid fascism in Europe that has followed in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
1. The Guardian, 5 October 1995.
2. London Evening Standard, 5 October 1995.
3. La Batalla, 2 December 1936 quoted in Guerra y Revolución en España (Progress, Moscow 1971).
4. Documents of German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945 (HMSO, 1951).
5. Abad de Santillán, Por qué perdismos la guerra (Buenos Aires, 1940). De Santillán was head of Catalonia’s Department of the Economy.
6. Quoted in International Solidarity with the Spanish Republic 1936-1939 (Progress, Moscow, 1975), which criticises imperialist sources for exaggerating Soviet participation in the Spanish war.
7. D. Ibárruri, They Shall Not Pass (London/New York, 1966).
8. Morning Star, 7 October 1995.
9. The Times, 15 January 1972.