Orwell and Loach on Spain

Dr Alan Sennett  

Even for the well read lay person, the politics of Republican Spain during the 1936-39 civil war can appear baffling. A viewing of Ken Loach’s 1995 film Land and Freedom raises more questions than could possibly be answered in a standard length feature film.   Familiarity with George Orwell’s 1938 account Homage to Catalonia fills in much detail and has clearly provided both source material and inspiration for screenwriter Jim Allen.  For those with a deeper knowledge of the micro-politics of the Spanish Left, the contributions of Andy Durgan, Loach’s historical advisor and expert on the Catalan dissident communists, are also evident.  Yet the reasons behind the main protagonist’s disillusion with the official Communist movement, at one point prompting him to tear up his CPGB party card in disgust, might still appear unclear.  Ideally the viewer needs an appreciation of the origins and context of the dispute between those who saw an organic connection between the struggle against fascism and what they believed to be an ongoing social revolution, and those who viewed the fight as solely a defence of democracy with revolution an unwelcome distraction.  Much can be explained by analysing the film’s key political scene.  Yet it has to be said that both Loach’s film and Orwell’s account must be approached with a critical eye.

As noted by Red Lester the meeting of newly-liberated townsfolk and POUM militia in the former landlord’s house offers a microcosm of political debates on the Left around the nature of the civil war.  At issue is whether to divide up the liberated estate into individual peasant plots or establish a collective enterprise for the common good and to help the war effort.  Collectivisation of property was a feature of the early months of the war and had been widespread in Catalonia, Valencia, Aragón and Andalucía with some 1,500 rural and over 2,000 industrial and service collectives created by early 1937.  Yet collectivisation went against the wishes of the republican government and its main military sponsor, the Soviet Union.  Hence the ‘sides’ in the debate tended to be, on the one hand, the parties of the Popular Front government struggling to re-establish political authority in late 1936 (Left Republicans, Socialists, Catalan and Basque nationalists and the official Communist Party) and, on the other, those promoting socialisation of the economy.  The latter were principally the Anarcho-syndicalist CNT and dissident communist POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification).

Loach’s film deals with the POUM militia that Orwell found himself fighting with by virtue of his ILP accreditation.  Much criticism from parts of the old Left revolved around the choice to focus upon this fairly small force with 200 or so foreign volunteers rather than the much more militarily significant Communist-organised International Brigade.  Yet Loach’s device permits an enlightening discussion between the revolutionaries and those who felt that social revolution was a distraction from what they saw as the main task: fighting the war to defend the democratically-elected Republican government.  This latter view is articulated by the American militiaman, Lawrence, and supported by the central character, the scouser David Carr.  Both men argue that now is not the time for theoretical debates about socialism because Franco must be defeated first.  Lawrence points out that apart from Mexico’s modest support, only the USSR was supplying arms in significant quantities.  He stresses that radical socialisation measures would only alienate the democracies, Britain and France, and destroy all hope of them coming to the aid of the Republic.

Contrary to the early hostile reviews from old-style Communists and the more measured criticisms of historians like Paul Preston, the collectivisation scene serves as a valuable pedagogical aid for the teacher seeking to convey the complexities of the conflicts within the anti-Franco camp.  The argument that the key issue was winning the war cannot simply be dismissed by those sympathetic to the social transformations that had taken place after July 1936.  One can indeed collectivise nothing if one is dead.  By the same token though, the question of what was being defended has to be seriously considered.  For many Spanish people confronting Franco’s nationalist coalition of professional military, old ruling classes, domestic fascists and foreign powers the war was surely about more than merely defending a bourgeois republic.  The republic’s failure to deliver profound social change was itself a major cause of the war.  Indeed Spain’s civil war cannot be understood as simply the product of the European conjuncture of the mid-1930s.   It had longer-run social political, economic and cultural dynamics.  If the civil war is often understandably portrayed as a precursor to WWII or part of a long European civil war (1914-1945), its causes were deep-rooted and overwhelmingly Spanish.  Hence there were not two but several ‘sides’ subsumed under ‘republican’ banner: democracy versus fascism; libertarian communists and Marxists with revolutionary agendas; also regional nationalists with their own aims.  Yet it cannot be denied that the interests of foreign powers were to prove decisive, at first in prolonging the war and thereafter ensuring the victory of Franco’s forces.  Almost all of these issues are raised in the collectivisation scene.

Of course, Loach and Allen’s purpose in Land and Freedom was not to offer a ‘history’ of the civil war nor explain its causes but rather to tell a particular story from that war.  It is necessarily partial and partisan in so far as it seeks to illustrate Orwell’s claim that a social revolution had indeed taken place.  Moreover, the social changes wrought were for many Spaniards and some foreign volunteers a crucial motivation for continuing to fight.  The film also adopts another claim voiced by Orwell that the revolution was brought to an end through the weight of Soviet influence upon the republican and Catalan governments.  It reflects Orwell’s powerful condemnation of the official Communist role in the process, driven by Stalin’s desire to forge an anti-German defensive alliance with France and Britain.  Hence the logic of the crushing of the social revolution was to demonstrate to the democracies that ‘good’ Communists posed no threat to the bourgeois order in Western Europe.  They were defending democracy against fascism; no more, no less.  If this may well have been part of Stalin’s thinking it needs to be set within a much broader context of the vicissitudes of Soviet Marxism after Lenin, as I try to do in my forthcoming book. One also needs to consider the changing international context of the 1930s and of Stalin’s purges at home.  Yet we should remain somewhat wary of the view from the revolutionary Left that the counterrevolution of the spring and early summer of 1937 was mainly Stalin’s doing.  Daniel Kowalsky has shown that Stalin’s ability to influence events in Spain has often been exaggerated.  It seems there were simply not enough Comintern and NKVD personnel in Spain at any one time to facilitate a systematic purge of dissidents.

If the film has historical weaknesses then perhaps a major one is the telescoping of events and debates that were in fact separated by months.  Durgan has noted that the POUM militia was active on the Aragón front but that this had become fairly static by mid-October 1936.  Liberation of villages had already taken place here so this wasn’t happening in the spring of 1937 as depicted in the film.  This makes it difficult to envisage a debate over collectivisation involving members of the official Communist parties like Lawrence and Carr happening at this time.  They would long have left the POUM units for the Popular Army.  A similar impression of time-shift is conveyed in Orwell’s book whose widely-cited description of revolutionary Barcelona in December 1936 as a city with ‘the working class in the saddle’ has been questioned by historians like Chris Ealham citing contemporary sources.  In reality the revolution had long since peaked and the revolutionary city was now reverting to its old class divisions, as Orwell noted upon his return from the front three months later. Nin had been expelled from the Catalan government on 16 December 1936 and the process of transforming the workers’ militias into units of the Popular Army was underway.  Moreover, the CNT leadership had already joined the republican government.  All of this affects the way we should view the final historical segment of the film.

The last third of Land and Freedom depicts events in Barcelona in May 1937 that were followed by the disbanding the POUM’s military units, the outlawing of the party, arrest of leading figures and the disappearance and murder of Andreu Nin.  More importantly, the ‘May Days’ sparked a deep crisis in the leadership of the CNT from which it was not to recover. But if May 1937 was significant, it was in reality the end of a counterrevolution that had begun months earlier.  Preston objects to the way the film stresses the conflict within the Republican ranks and leaves viewers with the sense that the civil war was not primarily a fight against fascism.  Yet Loach and Allen never purport to offer a general explanation of the civil war.  The film’s historical flashbacks cease in May or June 1937, almost two years before the war ended.  I would argue that while it is possible to exaggerate the significance of this internal conflict for the outcomes of the war, it is nevertheless an important dimension of both Spain’s war and the wider European crises of the mid-1930s.  The official Communist campaign against the POUM was real and did involve smearing its militants with the lies that they were ‘social fascists’, spies and traitors.  It also led to political murders of dissident communists and a trial of leading figures in Barcelona.  My book explores the political smear campaign, linking it to the divisions within the international communist movement from the mid-1920s and considering Trotsky’s role and influence upon dissident Marxists.  If there is a danger of attributing too much importance to the numerically small Soviet secret police presence, there are still important parallels with the purges going on in Russia.  Moreover, events in Spain affected GPU operations elsewhere, not least the murder of Trotsky in 1940.  Even so it is hard to argue that Stalin was primarily responsible for liquidating anarchists and dissident communists and ending the social revolution in Spain.  This was largely the work of the police and security forces of the republican and Catalan governments.  If this process accelerated after May 1937 under the Negrín government, it had actually begun much earlier and was evident in the process of forming a Popular Army.  Thus we should be wary of assuming that the motivation for violent actions against the POUM and other left-wing critics of Moscow was always to do with transferring the culture of the Moscow show trials onto Spanish soil. There were home-grown motives for many Spanish Communists’ participation in the persecution that took place over the following months. Many of those involved could be better described as republicans who certainly believed that the militias and collectives got in the way of a consolidated war effort.

It is difficult if not impossible to approach the Spanish Civil War without a political perspective.  If this was evidently true of contemporary commentators then it is equally so for writers, filmmakers and historians today.  Indeed much of the fascination and continued interest lies precisely in its political complexities and counterfactual possibilities.  But the ‘if only’ school of history contains huge methodological problems, not least the tendency to view history backwards from outcomes to causes.  Historians and filmmakers can so easily distort the sequence of events by conflating and reordering processes to suit a particular analysis.  The Spanish Republic cannot be deemed to have been defeated because of its internal divisions given that a significant section of those fighting Franco were not fighting to defend the bourgeois republic at all.  However, the social revolution that did take place was partial and in retreat by the end of 1936 and cannot be made into something it was not.  It would seem that there is no ‘if only’ alternative outcome for either partisans of the Spanish Revolution or those favourable to the democratic Republic.  Neither revolutionaries nor republicans had a realistic answer to the stark realities of the military imbalance evident from mid-1937.  German and Italian military support outweighed that of the Soviet Union and there never was much likelihood of intervention by the democracies in support of the Republic.  If it was a ‘world war in miniature’, or part of a ‘European civil war’, then it was a war that lacked the overt participation of Britain, France and America.

Dr Alan Sennett`s `Revolutionary Marxism in Spain` will be published soon by Brill.  


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