Comrade Bill Alexander, who worked as an industrial chemist before volunteering to fight in Spain, where he served as Political Commissar of the Anti-Tank Battery and then as Commander of the British Battalion, addressed a meeting in London on January 29, 1996, organised jointly by the Association of Indian Communist and the Association of Communist workers. His speech was of enormous significance for the present struggle of the working-class in Britain, and we therefore reproduce the main points that he made below.
Bill started by explaining why he considered it important to study the Spanish Civil War, even today, more thin half a century after it ended. He correctly pointed out that this War has important lessons to teach with regard to the struggle against racism and fascism. These lessons are particularly important today when, in a situation of world economic crisis of capitalism, bourgeois thoughts are turning increasingly towards fascism as being perhaps the only way of containing the working class as it is subjected to ever-greater hardship and deprivation He considered it no coincidence that at this time the books of George Orwell are being produced by the bourgeoisie in several new editions, and it was therefore important that progressive, anti-fascist and anti-racist people act decisively to put the record straight.
The bourgeois ideological offensive taking place at the present time explains the £2.5 million supplied to Ken Loach from some very dubious quarters to enable him to make the film Land and Freedom, which so glorifies certain Anarchist factions which acted in a counter-revolutionary fashion during the Spanish Civil War, and which so denigrates the real heroes of that war - the Communists from Spain and other countries who fought for the Republic - and the international working-class movement, especially the Soviet Union, and still more especially, that most deadly enemy of the bourgeoisie, Comrade Stalin. Comrade Bill pointed out that the surviving members of the British battalion of the International Brigade had offered their services to Ken Loach, but he did not want to know. At the same time, it is planned that Channel 4 next autumn will produce a programme sympathetic to the British fascist leader Oswald Mosely, depicting him as a person whose heart was in the right place but who made some 'mistakes'. This too shows the direction of the present bourgeois ideological offensive against the working class.
By way of background to the Spanish Civil War, Comrade Bill explained that the conditions for that war had arisen from World War I. This had been a conflict between two major groups of imperialists over control of colonies. It ended in the defeat of one imperialist group over another and in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie in Russia, and the formation of the world's first working-class state - the Soviet Union. This was a very dangerous factor for the international bourgeoisie.
This is one reason why, after the end of the war, the German imperialists hastened to build industry and to strengthen their armed forces to the hilt.
But something stood in the way of the Ruhr barons of industry in their desire to develop German industry to its full potential. What stood in the way was the German working class. The German working-class movement was very strong at that time. The German imperialists saw that they had no choice, if they were to fulfil their expansionist ambitions, but to smash it Thus it was that they turned to fascism. In Italy Mussolini did the same thing. In order to develop as an imperialist power, as an effective rival to British and French imperialism, he destroyed the working-class and other progressive organisations in Italy.
The aims of the fascists were, then, to prepare for war with a view to redividing the world, and, in order to achieve that, to smash all working-class resistance. At the start of the Spanish Civil War, fascism had already triumphed in Germany, Italy and Austria. It was now to advance on Spain.
According to the Daily Mail at that time, fascism was inevitable in Spain and other backward countries where people's living standards were low. Spain had been ruled by the army representing big landowners, including the Catholic Church. The Spanish army was a parasitic organism. It had one officer for every three men. Its barracks were situated in city centres, because its main concern was to keep the working class under control. The other task of the army was to maintain Spain's hold over her colonies. In these circumstances the Spanish people were hungry and thirsty for democracy and an improvement in their living conditions. For this reason they formed the Popular Front government. It is important to remember who were in this government. The majority of Republicans were 'liberals'. They were not socialists. There were only a handful of communists in it. Anarchists too had a dominant influence. The Popular Front Government based on this coalition was elected in 1936 and began to carry out democratic changes. Political prisoners were released from jail. Advances were introduced in educational provision. It became easier for landless peasants to acquire land. These changes were too much for the ruling groups mentioned above to tolerate. In 1936 Franco emerged as the leader of a group dedicated to overthrowing the Popular Front government. Franco thought that it would be as easy for him to introduce fascism as it had been for Hitler and Mussolini. But the Spanish people had learnt from what had happened in Germany and Italy They knew fascism was their main enemy and that they had to fight against it. Of course, it very much helped their understanding that the Communist International, led by Georgi Dimitrov, was able to analyse the international class forces and promote the line of uniting all anti-fascist forces.
Hitler planned to use the opportunity to advance the interests of German imperialism at the expense of British, French and American imperialism, while at the same time increasing his stranglehold on the working-class movement. Spain was a heaven-sent opportunity for Hitler to advance his war preparations.
The response of the British ruling class was typical of 'Perfidious Albion' (as Britain is known). It was up to every possible trick. They did not want to get involved in the war, so they proclaimed it to be a civil war in which outsiders ought not to get involved. They supported 'non intervention', deliberately, closing their eyes to the intervention that was taking place in front of their noses on the part of Germany and Italy on Franco's side before, during and after the war The slogan of 'non-intervention was simply an excuse to avoid assisting the democratically-elected Republican government and preventing it from buying the guns it needed to defend itself from fascism and its interventionist backers. So what happened?
In North Africa was stationed the Army of Africa. This army had considerable experience of war. The generals were in Spain, so that between them and the army lay the straits of Gibraltar. The Spanish Navy was on the. side of the Republic. Franco needed to get his troops across the water. Within 3 days the German Nazi Air Force provided all the air transport needed to ferry the Army of Africa into Republican Spain. The result was a 3-year long war, which would never have taken place if the 'non-interventionists' had prevented the fascists' intervention and had given the Republican government the right to buy the arms it needed.
Franco began to advance from Seville towards Madrid, the capital. What were the tasks of the Popular Front government? It had no army, because the Spanish army had gone over to Franco. It had men of enormous courage and conviction, but no military training. So the Republican government had to train up an army while at the same time Franco, helped by the Nazis, was already advancing from the South towards Madrid.
To counter this advance what was needed was (a) organisation, and (b) weapons. Franco incidentally secured his rear, as he advanced up towards Madrid, by the ruthless murder of everybody who opposed him. He murdered all the landless peas-ants who had taken over land in the South. In this way he was able to take over half of Spain in 3 months, leaving behind him a trail of death and destruction.
If Madrid had fallen the war would have been over and yet another country would have been in the fascist camp. This would have reinforced the idea that nothing could be done to prevent the advance of fascism. But Franco's troops were stopped by the heroic people of Spain, untrained and poorly armed though they were. The people of Madrid knew what fate awaited them if Madrid had fallen, and this strengthened their determination to stop fascism. Their victory over the fascists was a turning point of the war. Because of this victory, in October 1936, the Republican government was able to fight on until March 1939.
Those two and a half years gave the democratic people of the world the opportunity to learn lessons as to the true nature of fascism, to understand what it meant, and to prepare for the fight against fascism that began in 1939.
The International Brigade
Who were the International Brigade? All over the world, men and women felt that they could not stand aside while a democratically-elected government was simply forced out of power at gunpoint. People went to the aid of Spain from all over the world, from 40 to 50 countries. They decided to fight in Spain on the side of the Spanish people.
They were driven by a realisation that if fascism was not stopped in Spain, war and fascism could come to their own countries as well The volunteers were also concerned about their own families and their own futures, their peace and their liberty.
A few words about the people who came from Britain. We were called the Battalion Ingles (the English battalion) even though this included people from the Commonwealth, to say nothing of other parts of Britain. In the fight to defend Madrid, the British battalion played an important part. Later, between 12-14 February 1937, at Jarama, it had the job, alongside others, of stopping-of stopping the tremendous force armed by the Germans and Italians. A four-day battle took place. 16l of us were killed and nearly everyone was injured. But the enemy did not pass. They did not pass. We always mark that day because it was the first battle in which we fought. We stopped Franco's attempt to swing round and cut off Madrid from the rest of Republican Spain. I would like to mention in passing the Italian battalion of the International Brigade, the Garibaldi Battalion: - they knocked hell out of Mussolini's troops!
The heroism of the people- of Spain was beyond compare. So short of equipment were they, that the fighters from Madrid used to go to the Front in tram-cars. Their ability to hold out for so long against such overwhelming odds provides an important lesson of the power of the people when united to fight for a just cause.
To return to Ken Loach's film, it is clear from all I have said that by far the most important front at the time the events in his film supposedly take place was the Madrid front. Why did he not make a film about that? Why did he not portray the exceptional heroism of the people of Madrid as German shells fell all around them? That would have been a film worth making.
Instead he went to a remote village in Aragon, miles away from the decisive front. The events in that part of Spain revolved round Barcelona. In Barcelona, at the time that the fascist generals rose against the republic, the people stormed the barracks and took over the city. Having thus secured their position, they should then have gone out from Barcelona to give support to those fighting the advancing Franco troops. But this they did not do because of the anarchistic and POUM leadership. They did not fight at all. Loach decided to make his film at what was, in effect, a dormant front. During the events which occurred in Barcelona and which were depicted in the film, Franco was marching North to try to take Madrid, and the Nazis were preparing World War II. They were bombing Guernica so that they could assess the effect of mass bombing on a civilian population. You would never have known that from seeing this film.
Yet it is important to see the events depicted in the film within that context. In Barcelona, while the grim struggle was going on elsewhere, they had decided to stop fighting and to initiate collectivisation. They did not want to organise a disciplined army. They did not understand the need for one. Frankly, the scene where the arguments are taking place about collectivisation is quite pathetic when you remember the fate of the collectivised peasants of the South of Spain who had been wiped out by Franco in the early days of his advance. It is obvious that the order of the day was to stop Franco, and unless and until that had been done all talk of collectivisation was futile.
Where did Ken Loach get his ideas from?
Not from the 2,400 or so people who went to Spain from Britain to fight in the international brigades. It was illegal at that time to go to Spain to fight, because of the Non-Intervention treaty. What one had to do was to go to Paris on a non-passport trip, and then make one's way to Spain from there. Because of this illegality, it was impossible to know exactly how many British people went to fight in Spain, but the approximate number is 2400. 526 of these were killed. Who were these people? In the early days they were mainly writers and artists who realised that fascism was a threat to culture, because they knew that Hitler had been burning books. These people also had the know-how to get out of Britain and get to Spain. It was only later on that miners, dockers, and generally the cream of British industrial workers went out. They were joined by people who were fighting against British imperialism -27 from Cyprus, of whom nearly half were killed in Spain, and 120 from the Republic of Ireland. Nurses and doctors went because fascism had to be defeated first before the Spanish people could make up their minds as to what kind of government they wanted. A socialist revolution was not at that moment on their agenda. Ken Loach has, therefore, confused the issue, and his film has no relation to reality. This is why the true picture must be shown.
Why did the Spanish people lose?
The main reason was those who enforced the policy of 'non-intervention'. Our slogan Save Spain & Save Peace was correct. If help had been given to the Spanish Republic by the government of this country, if the movement had been strong enough to defeat the fascists, then World War II would not have happened.
Another of Loach's slanders is as to the role of the Soviet Union The Soviet Union wanted peace. For a short time, therefore, they went along with non-intervention until they saw the reality of this 'non-intervention' whereupon they decided they had a responsibility towards the democratic, peace-loving people of Spain. They sent help in the form of arms and food, and they gave every possible help to the Spanish people.
What was the role of the Soviet people who went to Spain? Ken Loach says they were murderers acting under Stalin's instructions. Well, I got given a Soviet anti-tank gun. A Soviet instructor showed us what to do with it. We were given Soviet rifles and he instructed us how to use them. While the German planes which were involved in supporting Franco were piloted by German pilots, Soviet instructors taught Spanish lads as airmen. Others were taught to drive tanks.
In addition the Soviet Union suffered great losses in under to help Spain. Its ships were bombed by Italian planes and sunk by German submarines. Some people think that the Soviet Union should have done more, not realising how much the Soviet Union actually did. Much of what it sent never arrived at its destination because of the activities not only of the German and Italian fascists, but also because of the activities of the 'non-interventionists', such as France, who prevented supplies destined for Spain from crossing French territory. In my opinion the Soviet Union did all that was humanly possible to do in the conditions prevailing at that time.
Why has Loach been given so much money to make such a film? Why is Orwell being taught in the schools as if he were a great author? It can only be that the ruling circles in imperialist countries want to lower people's vigilance against fascism.
If you are going to fight fascism you have to realise that it is fascism you fight at that time. You do not fight several other battles simultaneously if that can be avoided.
The second lesson of the Spanish Civil War is that you do have to fight, even if there is a possibility of losing. You may lose, but if you do not fight at the very first signs of fascism you will definitely lose.
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