The Lessons of the Spanish Civil War

A Review of Land and Freedom, Director: Ken Loach

Ken Loach is the only film-maker today producing anything remotely concerned with the reality of working class life. His Family Life of over twenty years ago has been more recently followed by Riff Raff and Raining Stones, films portraying graphically (if a little sentimentally) the growing poverty and lumpenisation of sections of the working class in Thatcherite Britain.

In Land and Freedom his subject matter and his purposes are different. The film starts off in Liverpool (where else could a Loach film start?) and ends there. It starts with the death of David Carr, an old man on his way to hospital in an ambulance in the company of his grand-daughter and wife. The grand-daughter then goes through his things and discovers a suitcase full of Spanish Civil War mementos, including letters from Dave to his then girlfriend in Liverpool. The reading of these leads us into the inevitable flashback to 1936.

If this sounds a bit hackneyed it is because it is, well, a bit … hackneyed. However it is mercifully short and we are soon with the young Dave in a Communist Party meeting in Liverpool in 1936. You can tell it is a Communist Party meeting because the Spanish speaker at the meeting never once refers to the working class or the class struggle. His appeal is for those present to support “democracy”, “freedom-loving people” or “the Popular Front”. This introductory spiel also portrays Franco as a Fascist (with a capital “F”). Historically this is inaccurate as Fracno was a Catholic traditionalist who actually marginalised the real Fascist movement, the Falange, on the Nationalist side. However such an identification was historically made by the Stalinists (and the POUMists, Trotskyists and Anarchists), the better to conjure up support for the fight for “democracy”, so we can still say that the film credibly portrays the ideologies of the time. However it is around the issue of the anti-fascist fight that the whole debate about this film has to take. More of that later; let’s return to our hero.

Dave is so inspired by the justice of the Spanish workers’ cause that he decides to enlist in the militias as some young unemployed men did in the 1930s. Dave is not an Eton toff like George Orwell or the other great chronicles of the Spanish Civil War who have wandered across the pages of history rewriting it as they went. Dave is a straightforward, card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Typically a product of the British working class, he is impatient of theory but eager to act. This helps to explain why he ends up walking into Spain from France in order to join the first militia he meets. This is an international militia run by the P.O.U.M. (Partido Obrera de Unificación Marxista) or Workers Party of Marxist Unification.

Ken Loach does not tell us once what the POUM stood for. He doesn’t tell us that the POUM leadership supported the Popular Front Government led by bourgeois Republicans (alongside the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and the tiny Spanish Communist Party (PCE). He doesn’t tell us that the POUM was actually in the Catalan Government (alongside Catalan bourgeois nationalists and the Anarchists of the CNT-FAI) which nominally ran the militias in the part of Spain where Dave found himself, the Aragon Front. He does not tell us that Trotsky had also broken with the POUM over their alliance with the forces of the bourgeoisie in 1933. When the Basque Country under the Basque Nationalist Party was given its autonomy in October 1936 the POUM supported it as “a moment in the struggle against fascism and for a new society”. What the film does tell us is that the members of the POUM militia thought they were part of a revolution in 1936. In fact the POUM leaders (Joaquin Maurin, murdered by Franco, and Andres Nin, murdered directly on Stalin’s orders) actually took part in the disarming of the very revolution that Ken Loach considered to be ongoing in 1937.

The Sorry Course of Anti-Fascism in Spain

The facts are these. In 1931 the Spanish monarchy was overthrown and the Second Republic set up. It was widely loathed by substantial sections of the traditional Spanish ruling class. Landowners, Catholics, Army officers formed a reactionary hard core which never accepted the Republic. In 1934 due to mass abstention on the part of the working class the Right won the elections. Once they got control of the Republic the Right came to accept it. But in February 1936 a Popular Front Government was elected in Spain led by bourgeois Republicans but with the participation of the PSOE and PCE and the support of the anarchist CNT-FAI and the POUM. For the Spanish reactionaries who led the Republican armies this was too much and they began to plot to overthrow the republic. The pronunciamiento (coup) was launched on July 18th, 1936.

At this point the bourgeois Republican Government hesitated. Some wanted to do a deal with the Army and certainly most of them agreed that it was not a good idea to release arms to the working class. In the streets, especially in Barcelona, a spontaneous insurrection took place, in which the pent up fury of decades of exploitation of the Spanish working masses was unleashed. Generals who were caught up were shot. Churches were burned, priests killed and all kinds of attacks on bourgeois were carried out in Republican held areas (these however were more than matched by the systematic slaughter of working class militants in the Nationalist zone). When the Giral Government refused to give them arms the workers attacked the barracks and arsenals. Some put themselves under the command of one or other of the trade union federations (the syndicalist CNT and the socialist led UGT) but the vast majority of the actions took place outside the control of political parties and the unions (despite the fact that 25% of all males over 15 where union members). In places where these organisations did not arm the workers or the workers were slow to seize arms for themselves the Nationalist were able to take over (as in Seville).

In economic terms the workers were soon faced with what to do when landowners and capitalists abandoned their property to run off to Nationalist zones. The solution was to take over the factories and the land. In Aragon the land in many villages was collectivised. All this gives the appearance of a profound revolution but in fact it turned, as the film shows but does not explain, into a grand illusion.

What really happened was that the Catalan Government of Luis Companys, a bourgeois radical, merely legitimised all the actions of the workers including the setting up of armed militias. The CNT-FAI anarchists actually joined the Government and supported the bourgeois state (“the most transcendental day in our history” recorded their paper Solidaridad Obrera in 1936). For their part, the POUM leaders talked as if the working class had already won

In Catalonia the dictatorship of the proletariat already exists… We were part of a profound social revolution in Spain; our revolution was deeper than that which swept through Russia in 1917

Andres Nin, Revolucion Espanol quoted in “The War in Spain” Bilan, January 1937

Nin was deluding himself. Even worse he deluded the working class in Spain. It was true that the workers, especially in Barcelona who had taken the lead in defeating the supporters of Franco in the zones where they acted hesitatingly. They not only defeated the reactionary army but in the first week after July 18th 1936 they also posed a threat to the domination of the bourgeois government of the Republic. As they rose against the Francoists they also demanded wage increases, a 36 hour work week and the expropriation of the factories. But these demands were soon channelled into the fight against fascism and the temporary threat to the Republic ended. Who ended this threat? Not the workers but their so-called representatives in the POUM and the CNT-FAI. They called for the necessary order and for support of the bourgeois republic. Any revolution which does not destroy the bourgeois state is ultimately doomed. And this is where the Spanish workers failed. Instead of seizing the state they were brought to support it. By abandoning their own strike actions and joining the militias that abandoned the working class strongholds in the towns the workers were disarmed. Once the idea of a civil war between two conventional and bourgeois armies is accepted the working class is lost. From July 1936, under the slogan of “fighting the fascists”, the Republic began the slow but unstoppable process of regaining control over the working class. As the organ of the Communist Left of the time wrote in January 1937 (i.e. before the final defeat of the POUM in May 1937)

Very quickly the initial class strike was transformed into a war. It was a war which set worker against worker and peasant against peasant, under the exclusive control of the bourgeoisie, of Franco and Azaña (President of the Republic after November 1936 - CWO), whose power was dissipated but not destroyed.

Bilan, translated and published in RP5 First Series

Preparation for Catastrophe

The POUM, far from leading the revolution, thus prepared the ground for its final crushing. The tragedy for its members was that this was the fruit of supporting the Popular Front. The Popular Front was not an idea dreamed up to unite “the left” against fascism as some of the more innocent still believe. The Popular Front was an invention of Stalinism. It was first announced to a shocked world in November 1935 at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International had been nothing but a tool of USSR foreign policy for many years. This policy like all other Comintern policies was forged in the Kremlin. Members of the various Communist Parties now heard that the Socialist Party that they had been slagging off as “a twin of the fascists” was now, after all, working class and they should seek not only alliances with the Socialists but also with all “progressive” parties (which did not rule out conservative parties in some countries).

As usual the reason for this international shift was to do with the defence of “socialism in one country”. By 1935 Stalin recognised that Hitler’s main military target was the USSR. He needed allies fast but the French and British bourgeoisies were not interested (in fact they rather liked the way fascism had dealt with the workers in Central Europe and would have delighted had Hitler attacked the USSR). In order to put pressure on them through their electorates the anti-fascist Popular Front was dreamed up. By calling for the “defence of democracy” it not only obscured the bourgeois class character of this particular form of government it also provided the ideology for mobilising millions in the Second World War. But before that particular tragedy was visited upon the European working class the Spanish working class had their own Calvary to climb.

In fact only in France and Spain did Popular Front governments get elected. By supporting the Popular Front as if it was a guardian of revolution (and not of the capitalist state) the POUM helped to contribute to the disaster which engulfed itself and the Spanish working class. Once the revolution had been suppressed the working class was forced to fight in a conventional war. The class war was turned into an imperialist war. It was the exact opposite of Lenin’s slogan in the First World War. On the Nationalist side Germany and Italy used the war to train troops (the bombing of Guernica in the Basque country was a cold-blooded rehearsal that led to the finale in Hiroshima) and Germany reaped the reward of getting Spanish mineral deposits as a reward.

On the Republican side only Mexico openly sided with the Republic (strange that the legally recognised government of Spain got so little international support!) but the secret paymaster was Stalin. This had an enormous effect on what happened on the Republican side. The Stalinists (who numbered a few thousand in 1936 and were much smaller than the POUM) grew because they had control of the arms supply (a fact well-illustrated by the film). They also grew because they won the support of the peasant proprietors who hated and feared collectivisation, particularly in the Valencia region. Stalinist support for petty bourgeois producers is also well illustrated in the film. Gradually, through their infiltration of the Socialist Party, the Stalinists came to be the real rulers in Republican Spain (and Stalin got the Spanish gold reserves as a nice payoff). By May 1937 they controlled the Army and the Secret Police (the S.I.M) and the days of the other organisations were numbered.

To once again return to our wandering hero, Dave had been wounded and went to Barcelona where he joined the Stalinised regular Republican Army. He ends up taking part in the attack on the CNT-held Barcelona Telephone Exchange but this (in an almost comic but somehow believable scene), causes him to confront what he is doing. When he hears an English voice from the Anarchist side (although Loach never actually tells us that they are anarchists!) he shouts over to ask him why he is fighting on the other side. The reply is a question asking him why he is fighting with the Stalinists. Dave’s honest response (“Fuck knows!”) is the beginning of his abandonment of the Communist Party. He tears up his Party card and returns to the Aragon Front to fight with his real comrades in the POUM. What Ken Loach doesn’t tell us is that the POUM leadership have abandoned their militants. Having ordered them to,

...withdraw from the barricades and from the streets and to resume work…

It went on to insist that they were still,

...uniting all organisations ready to fight for the total destruction of fascism.

La Batalla, quoted in Bilan

And all this at the very time when the Stalinist press was denouncing the POUM as a Francoist organisation!

By the time Dave rejoins his comrades changes have taken place. The women have been told they cannot fight but have to cook and be nurses. Arms are in even shorter supply and there is no further support from HQ. Earlier Dave had asked his comrades,

The Communist Party was set up for the revolution. Why would it want to end it?

The most coherent reply comes from the Frenchman, Bernard who tells him that the ideas of the Party have become so diluted that they mean nothing. Now the Communist Party represents the hopes of one imperialism (by which he meant the USSR).

Soon the reality of that imperialism is on them when they are surrounded and disarmed by Republican troops led by Stalinists and the leading POUM militants are taken off to be interrogated in the S.I.M. prisons before they are shot. Dave himself is under threat of arrest and is forced to escape from Spain.

This all sounds depressing and in reality it is. But Ken Loach doesn’t want us to take a despairing message from the film. The final Spanish scene is the funeral of Blanca, Dave’s Spanish lover in which Dave picks up some of the soil of Aragon. The film ends with that soil of Aragon being poured into Dave’s Liverpool grave by his grand-daughter who also reads out a William Morris poem and organises the relatives into clenched-fist salutes. The message is that she carries on the dream of revolutionary change.

The Guardian reported on September 29th this year that Land and Freedom is playing to packed audiences of young Spaniards who for the first time, twenty years after the death of Franco are getting to hear the truth about their history for the first time. It is not surprising that they know so little. In a poll conducted by the Spanish paper Cambio 16 in 1983, 77% of the population either were not born or were too young to remember the war whilst only 7% actually claimed to have taken part (1). Twelves years later the gap between these figures can only have increased.

Given the mass shootings Franco carried out as he took over this is not surprising but we should add to that the deaths inflicted by Stalin. The murder of Nin and the suppression of the POUM brought Stalin’s purges outside the USSR for the first time. These purges were largely led by “Ercoli” otherwise known in history as Palmiro Togliatti, the Stalin-appointed General Secretary of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). It was not the end of his butchery, as our comrades of the Internationalist Communist Party discovered in 1945 (2). Nor was the event of May 1937 the defeat of the Spanish revolution. As we have tried to show here, this occurred in the early days of July 1936.

We hope young people everywhere do find the film’s message that revolutionary change is both necessary and possible, inspiring. Spain has now been a so-called democracy for twenty years. For more than half of that time it has been ruled by the so-called Socialist Party. It has the highest unemployment in Western Europe today and most of the young, however well educated, can only find the most precarious of livings. The working class in Spain has not been silent over that period and some of its struggles have reminded us of the revolutionary aspirations of the past.

However if revolutionary change is to take place in the future we have to learn the real lessons of the Spanish events. We have to understand the full historical truth about why the revolution failed and that it was because the organisations which the working class put its trust in, all came to prefer support for the democratic state to the social revolution. The political heirs of the POUM, as well the Trotskyists, the Anarchists and the Stalinists still peddle the basic message of class collaboration in their various anti-fascist movements. Failure to draw this lesson is a bit like Dave’s refusal to believe that the Communist Party was the butcher of the revolutionary workers.

In 1930s Spain it would have been difficult for the Spanish workers to have made a revolution on their own given the fact that the great defeat of the post-war revolutionary wave still hung over the international working class. This defeat had transformed former revolutionaries into Stalinist hacks and helped explain why the capitalists on both sides of the Spanish Civil War were so successful. What the events in Spain tell us is that the only war for the working class is class war. This means against all bourgeois factions whatever their political claims to be based on the working class. In saying this we are only repeating what the Communist Left have been arguing for 70 years. Never before have our arguments appeared so correct or necessary if we are to build a truly independent movement of the working class (3).



(1) “El Horror Que No Se Olvida” (The Unforgettable Horror) Cambio 16 Extra 19-26 September 1983.

(2) For more on the murders of comrades Acquavia and Atti by the Stalinist PCI see “What do workers commemorate from 1945?” Workers Voice 78 and “Il processo di formazione e nascita del Partito Comunista Internazionalista” in Quaderni di BC (available from our Italians comrades’ address, £3 plus postage). The Stalinists also went on to the next logical step after anti-fascism and became the loyal supporters of the Italian Republic after 1946.

(3) Next year is the sixtieth anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War and Revolutionary Perspectives will dedicate its summer issue to a fuller analysis of the event. This will also look at the split in the Communist Left at this time over the right way to fight for a working class perspective in such a bourgeois slaughterhouse.

Friday, December 1, 1995

Revolutionary Perspectives

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