Issue 190 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1995 Copyright Socialist Review

The red brigades

The new Ken Loach film Land and Freedom tells the story of a young man who joins the International Brigades to fight fascism in Spain in 1936. Judy Cox looks at their heroic struggle, and the workers' revolt which shook the ruling classes throughout Europe
The first International Brigaders march through Barcelona, October 1936

In 1936 Spain became the scene of one of the greatest battles against fascism. Spain was a poor country where the majority lived in almost feudal conditions labouring on great estates, and the big cities appeared like islands in a sea of rural poverty. In the 1930s there was a rising wave of class struggle and land seizures. In 1936 a left wing Popular Front government was elected, but the workers and the landless labourers were not prepared to wait and hope for reforms. They took matters into their own hands and strikes increased until July 1936 when one million were on strike.

The ruling class of Spain was terrified by this growing movement of the poor and oppressed. On 17 July the fascist general Franco, supported by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the army and the big landowners, launched a revolt against the democratically elected government of Spain. Civil war broke out, and in many parts of the country where the left was dominant there was revolutionary social change. The government was paralysed by the fascist revolt, so it was left to workers and peasants to organise the resistance to the fascists. They unleashed one of the most spectacular working class revolutions in history.

In cities and towns across Spain the trade unions took over organising transport, radio stations and telephone systems. Anti-fascist committees were set up to organise training militias and supplying the troops who were fighting Franco. In Barcelona, where the revolution went furthest, the workers collectivised the workplaces where over 100 people worked. The metro workers issued a proclamation, 'Now we set out on our great adventure.' The Ritz Gastronomic became the UGT/CNT Canteen Number 2. Rents were halved and evictions were prohibited. The women's prison was torn down and abortion was legalised for the first time in western Europe. Barcelona was a city in revolt. Everywhere red flags flew, cars were commandeered and decorated with the union's slogans, even the language of subservience disappeared.

The Spanish Revolution horrified the ruling class across Europe. In Britain large sections of the establishment supported Franco as a crusader against Communism. The Conservative government joined the governments of Europe in signing the non-intervention pact which banned the selling of arms to the Spanish Republicans and was enforced with a blockade of Spanish ports. They maintained this position even after it became obvious that Hitler and Mussolini were supplying Franco with troops, tanks and planes. The Labour Party and the TUC were reluctant to support Spain but were eventually pushed by their members into calling for the Spanish government's right to buy arms to be restored, but this remained a paper resolution which was never acted on.

In contrast, thousands of workers were outraged by this abandonment of the Spanish Republic which had become a beacon for everyone who wanted to halt the rise of fascism. In the first few months of the war the Communist Party organised solidarity meetings: 3,000 people turned up in Newcastle, 7,000 came to the Albert Hall, London, and 2,000 came to Leeds Town Hall. The Aid For Spain campaign collected medical aid and food and got a tremendous response. Will Paynter recalled:

When the first food ship was ready at Christmas 1936, it had a packed send off meeting in Shoreditch Town Hall. The dockers in Southampton donated the wages they were paid for loading the ship towards a second boatload.

By November 1936, Communist Party members initiated a move to organise volunteers to fight in Spain, and the Spanish government agreed to the formation of the International Brigades. Some individual Communist Party members had already joined the fighting. Felicia Browne, a painter who was visiting Barcelona in July 1936, immediately joined a militia and was killed in fighting in August 1936. Now the Communist Party began openly calling for volunteers. The government made recruiting for the International Brigades illegal in January 1937, but volunteers continued to sign up, despite the danger and the hardships of the journey to Spain.

It is a popular misconception that the International Brigaders were composed of middle class intellectuals and writers.

The red brigades

However, between 80 and 90 per cent of the volunteers who went from Britain, Europe and the US were workers: engineers, miners, bus workers and printers. Some had suffered from years of unemployment. Many were leading trade union militants and Communist Party activists. one of the British volunteers was Jack Jones, later secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. At CP congresses there was a roll of honour for brigaders who had been killed. There was also the Abraham Lincoln Brigade made up of 2,800 volunteers from the US, many of whom had been involved in the militant union, the International Workers of the World. This was the first really racially integrated military unit in American history. The International Brigades were a powerful symbol of international solidarity and their presence had a big impact on the morale of the Republican forces.

The brigaders joined up to fight against fascism, but inside Spain political divisions were emerging on the Republican side. The Popular Front government was made up of middle class parties as well as Socialists and Communists. It represented what Trotsky called the 'shadow bourgeoisie' because the big bourgeoisie sided with Franco.

The government was supported by the Spanish Communist Party. The CP's policies were dictated by Stalin, who also wanted to forge alliances with the governments of France and Britain. It argued that the revolution must be postponed until Franco had been defeated. In practice that meant opposing the collectivisation of the huge estates and defending the rights of property owners. The Spanish Communist Party had been tiny before the revolution, with only 1,000 members in 1934. Property owners saw the CP as a force which could defend them from the workers' revolution. During the civil war 76,700 peasant proprietors and tenant farmers and 15,485 members of the urban middle classes joined the Communist Party. As George Orwell wrote, 'The Communist Party reduced the civil war to a non-revolutionary war which put the government at a big disadvantage.'

The workers who had made the revolution, on the other hand, looked mainly to the anarchist CNT. They argued that the best chance of defeating Franco was through linking the war with the fight for socialism. This would have meant liberating Spanish Morocco, collectivising the land and so making every village a fortress against fascism and giving every worker a stake in a socialist society. The debate between the government--supported by the CP--and the workers became increasing urgent and bitter.

The Communists' credibility relied on the promise of arms from Russia and from the International Brigades. Communist forces were instrumental in the defence of Madrid, where the famous 'No pasaran' (they shall not pass) slogan originated. Around 3,500 international Brigaders took part in the battle for Madrid.

However, the CP was most concerned to dismantle the revolutionary gains of July and August, restore government controls and regularise the militias, especially in Catalonia which was the heart of the revolution. In May 1937 the CP attacked anarchists and members of the far left POUM. Fighting raged in Barcelona but eventually the Communist Party and the government succeeded in establishing control. They exacted a heavy price from the workers of Barcelona--left wing papers were suppressed and revolutionary leaders were tortured and murdered.

From this point on, fighting the war was a question of survival--it was no longer a war to build a new society. The International Brigades fought on throughout 1937 and 1938 taking part in some of the bloodiest battles, like the bitterly cold fight for Teruel and the Ebro Offensive, but their numbers were steadily dwindling. The Republicans could never consolidate their military successes in the face of Franco's professional well equipped army. The Republican forces were deeply demoralised by the defeat of the revolution and the imprisonment and execution of many of their most trusted leaders. When the fascist forces advanced on Barcelona, the demoralisation was so deep that only 1,000 people volunteered to defend the city.

In January 1939 the International Brigades were withdrawn. They had a very emotional send off on the march through Barcelona. La Pasionaria, one of the CPs most famous orators, said of them:

Not every volunteer in Spain agreed with what the Communist Party did. George Orwell, for example, fought with the anarchist and POUM militias. Some witnessed at first hand the atrocities committed by the Communists. But the numbers who left the Communist Party were small because there seemed to be so little alternative.

The International Brigades were crucial to the growth of the Communist Party's influence in Spain. They became a symbol of the courage of rank and file workers and Communists. Tragically, however, the Communist Party's strategy was to undermine the workers' organisations thrown up by the spontaneous revolution of 1936. The defeat of the revolution, the demoralisation and betrayal felt by the Republican forces, led to defeat in the civil war.


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