War and Revolution in Spain
On the 17th July 1936 General Franco and his troops led fascists, monarchists, landowners, capitalists and clerics in a coup against the “left-wing” bourgeois-capitalist government in Spain. In many parts of the country workers took up arms, resisting and often defeating Franco’s troops and their supporters. The Spanish Civil War had begun.
The fight against the Francoists also marked the start of a social revolution. Spain had a long history of socialist and anarchist agitation and many workers sought not only to protect the status quo, but the emancipation of the working classes (be it in factory syndicates or agrarian communes). Many women, such as those organising in the anarchist group Mujeres Libres, defied patriarchal conventions as they organised and fought for their own and their comrades’ liberation. However, they were faced with fierce resistance as sexism was anything but restricted to Francoists, but also vividly expressed by many who called themselves anarchists or communists.
Internationally the anti-fascists were virtually isolated while Franco got immediate support from fascist Italy and Germany. For the latter, Spain was a practical laboratory for their war machinery (brutally demonstrated by the systematic aerial bombardment of the Basque town of Guernica).
Faced with the inaction of their ‘democratic’ governments, many people showed practical solidarity with the anti-fascists, determined to prevent Spain from becoming the next place, after Italy and Germany, where fascism was to be victorious. There was a wide array of support activities such as the Co-Operative Party led initiative to send an ambulance to Spain from Nottingham. Many people decided to go to Spain themselves, either to take up arms or to support the war from behind the frontlines.
In the early stages of the war, many of those who went to fight joined one of the militias; not necessarily being entirely au fait with the specific politics of the group. Most volunteers’ motivation was to fight fascism and they knew little or nothing about the complicated political relations between the various anti-fascist fractions. A famous example is George Orwell, an Independent Labour Party member who fought with the POUM, a revolutionary Marxist militia. He wrote in hindsight that if he would have gone to Spain with no political affiliations he probably would have joined the International Column, and if he had understood the situation better he would have joined the Anarchists.
The rise of Stalinism
As the only states supporting the anti-fascist struggle were Mexico and the USSR, Stalinism gained more and more support in Spain with every shipment of weapons that arrived. With the rise of Stalinist influence began the rollback of the revolution in all areas of society. This was noticeable not least at the front, where the egalitarian militia system (notable for its lack of senior ranks and a strict policy of equal wages) was first incorporated in, and then suppressed by, an authoritarian army structure. A by-product of this ‘militarization of the war’ was that the de facto Stalinist controlled International Brigades became the units in which most of the international volunteers were organised regardless of their political backgrounds.
The swelling conflict between Stalinists and revolutionaries escalated to murders and fierce street fighting, notably in Barcelona. The Stalinists prevailed in the power struggle. Brutal purges took place and the remaining revolutionary structures were crushed. Stalinism also re-established gender hierarchies as the Mujeres Libres were persecuted in a nasty backlash of patriarchal rule. The war continued into 1939, but was no longer a revolutionary struggle, turning instead to a defence of bourgeois capitalist democracy.
Legacy and remembrance
Why the fascists were victorious in 1939, strengthening fascism all over Europe, has long and bitterly been debated, especially among the various fractions of the (radical) left. Undoubtedly one decisive factor was the inaction of ‘democracies’ like the UK, who did not want to see that the war in Spain had only been the prologue for the terrors to come.
Those people joining the anti-fascist struggle in Spain should be remembered for their personal bravery and their exemplary active solidarity.
We despise the Stalinist system into which the International Brigades were incorporated. Stalinism meant that revolutionary workers were being dragged by their natural enemies – police thugs – to the Stalinist torture chambers and/or in front of firing squads.
However we include in our remembrance and commemoration those individuals who went to Spain dedicating themselves to defeat fascism and ended up fighting in the International Brigades.
The events in Spain of the late 1930s still inspire and cause fierce clashes. They are inspirational because they give all of us, despite different and often contradicting political beliefs, something on which we can project our revolutionary aspirations and fantasies, particularly in a period when revolution seems more unattainable than ever. Fierce clashes about the memories of war and revolution normally take place among lefties. But apparently we are not alone in feeling strongly about the issues; provincial Tory councillors do as well.
It would be funny, if it were not so sad, that one of Kay Cutts’ first actions after taking over the County Council was to replace the explanatory plaque at the memorial for the Nottinghamshire volunteers in the International Brigades with vague drivel. It was an obvious attempt to brush over this aspect of Nottinghamshire history, giving the casual passer-by the impression that the wall-mounted plaques are generic monuments to people who died in one of Britain’s many wars.
In a bizarre way, Cutts’ actions parallel those of the Stalinist machinery in 1936-1939. The revolution was not only suppressed by brute force but also by Stalinist parties and papers who busied themselves across the world rewriting and re-branding the events as they unfolded. The Tories’ action can be seen in this tradition, rewriting history and re-branding it with a new and more convenient plaque.
Whilst Jon Collins, Cutts’ counterpart at the Labour-run City Council has no problems with historical anti-fascism and is happy for the Council House to host an exhibition about the Spanish Civil War, his record on current anti-fascist struggles is less commendable. Collins’ disgraceful attempts to stop protests when EDL thugs roamed through the streets of Nottingham fit into a pattern of official inaction towards fascism which can be traced back to the UK government’s position towards anti-fascists in Spain. The British state was happy to see Franco seize power, not least as a fascist state was better for business than the revolutionary alternative. As this ignoble tradition is something Collins is more than happy to conform to, he opposed anti-fascist action in favour of Christmas shopping and Bratwurst munching.
The British state is no more an ally of anti-fascists today than it was 74 years ago. The struggle against fascism remains one we must all fight. The need to resist the likes of the BNP or EDL in our own communities is clear, as is the need for solidarity with those faced by more professional and more murderous fascists in Germany, Russia, Italy and indeed Spain. Now as then our tasks are clear…
FOR THE SOCIAL REVOLUTION