7. The Civil War in Spain

Submitted by libcom on October 28, 2005

7 The Civil War in Spain

The Spanish Civil War began in July 1936, when a fascist coup aimed at replacing the left wing Republican government was met across one half of the country by armed resistance from the working class and peasantry. The outbreak of the Civil War, and the mounting wave of class struggle which had preceded and provoked the fascist coup, were greeted by the anti-parliamentary communists in much the same way that Sylvia Pankhurst had welcomed the Russian revolution nearly 20 years earlier. It was like 'the dawn on the horizon after a long and painful night'.'

Surveying the violent class struggle which had continued in Spain after the victory of the Popular Front in the elections of February 1936, the APCF commented: 'The recent events in Spain have given the International Proletariat the first welcome news for some time. The drift towards Fascism has been challenged in one European country at least.'2 At the beginning of August 1936 Guy Aldred described the 'Spanish Struggle' as 'the mighty proletarian movement that Europe needed'.3 More to the point, the Spanish struggle was the mighty proletarian movement the anti-parliamentarians needed. After several years of decline, the outbreak of the Civil War provided the impetus for a period of sustained and intense activity. Within ten days of the beginning of the Civil War on 19 July 1936, the USM had published the first issue of a foolscap newssheet called Regeneration. Between then and 7 October another eighteen issues were published and distributed by the thousand. Open-air meetings were also stepped-up. John Caldwell, a member of the USM at that time, has recalled that public meetings soon 'drew bigger crowds than at any time since the general strike',4 while Willie McDougall of the APCF noted that he was 'never so active in speaking at street corners as ... during the Spanish crisis'.5

The anti-parliamentarians immediately began to use the attempted overthrow of the Republican government as evidence to substantiate their view that parliamentarism was useless as a means of achieving reforms or of bringing about a revolution. In September 1936 the APCF warned: 'Elect a government to bring about genuine reforms . . . and your Bishops, Priests and Ministers, your Churchills. Mosleys, Chamberlains, MacDonalds, etc., will immediately call for a so-called volunteer force to protect the property of the rich.''1 Twelve months later, APCF member A.S. Knox argued along similar lines: 'The uselessness of parliament should be obvious to all ... wherever the ruling class decides that parliament fails to express their desires, parliament will be abolished!'.7 In 1939 a section of the APCF's 'Principles And Tactics', directed against the parliamentary strategy of the SPGB. dismissed the idea that the ruling class would tolerate 'a genuinely revolutionary parliament, elected expressly to dispossess them' with the comment: 'Surely Franco supplies the answer to such a childish notion.'8

A final example of the way in which the Civil War was cited as evidence whenever the anti-parliamentary case was put forward could be found in the November 1940-January 1941 issue of the APCF paper Solidarity. Arguing against 'the belief in parliamentary action as the road to working class power', the author pointed to 'the recent Spanish tragedy' in which 'the incensed ruling class repudiated even their own bourgeois legality and unleashed the most bloody butchery of the proletariat the world has ever witnessed'. This experience was then used to criticise the Communist Party's demand for a 'Workers' Government' to replace the wartime coalition national government. The British ruling class could not be expected to 'respect their own institution' if 'a Government prepared to accede to the workers' demands' took power: 'At the first threat of resistance to their will, they would immediately establish a military dictatorship and by sheer weight of arms smash any attempt at progressive legislation.'9

The APCF had expressed a similar lack of faith in parliamentarism shortly after the elections which had brought the Popular Front government to power in Spain. While admitting that the new government had taken some useful measures, such as the release of '30 000 class war prisoners', the APCF pointed out: 'It was the mass pressure of the people and not the empty promises of politicians, that gave these comrades their freedom . . . the workers have had to resort to repeated demonstrations and general strikes to force the fulfilment of the amnesty and other promises made.' The Republican government was described as a capitalist administration which would not hesitate to crush the working class and which it was in the workers' interests not to support but to destroy:

The election pact of the People's Front, while promising the amnesty demanded by the workers, was nevertheless a liberalistic and reformist document from start to finish . . . The People's Block of today leaves Capitalist society intact, and left alone . . . the Spanish capitalist class will repeat what their German confreres did in 1918 . . . there is ample reason for the Spanish workers to work for a change of System and to refuse to be lulled to political sleep by any mere change of government, however many 'concessions' may be promised by the demagogues of Capitalism.10

Before 19 July, therefore, the anti-parliamentarians were not supporters of the Republican government, and after the beginning of the Civil War they repeatedly warned the working class not to place any faith in parliamentary institutions. However, such views represented an element of the anti-parliamentarians' response to the events in Spain which was flatly contradicted by the ideas which dominated their propaganda until mid-1937.


If a single document encapsulated all the essential features of the anti-parliamentarians' position during the initial period of the Spanish Civil War, it was the resolution adopted at a meeting of the USM on 11 August 1936. This demanded 'that all workers' organisations convene public meetings for the purpose of expressing complete solidarity with the Spanish Government de facto and de jure', and to criticise the British government for refusing to supply the Republic with arms. Prime Minister Baldwin was censured for not recalling Parliament to session, as was Labour leader Attlee for not demanding that this be done. The USM proceeded to urge the recall and dissolution of Parliament and a direct appeal to the electors on this one issue: SUPPORT SPAIN', with 'All Anarchists and Anti-Parliamentarians to vote for and support all candidates standing against Fascism and for practical support of Spain.' If Parliament was not recalled and dissolved there should be a general strike and the establishment of Councils of Action to sit in permanent session until the Spanish crisis was resolved. The resolution ended by repeating its appeal for 'definite action and support of the Spanish Government and the workers of Spain.'11

Thus the basic features of the anti-parliamentarians' initial response were: support for the Republican government; respect for capitalist legality; calls for intervention by other nation states; and a readiness to unite with other organisations on the minimum basis of support for the Republic. All of these features arose from the anti-parliamentarians' view that the Civil War was basically a 'fight . . . between military fascism and democracy, even constitutional democracy',12 and from their support for the latter against the former.

Support for the Republican government was pledged in nearly every issue of Regeneration. More often than not, support for the Spanish working class and support for the Spanish government were represented as inseparable. This could be seen in the frequent use of phrases promising 'complete loyalty through all possible action to the Spanish Government and workers who support it',13 or supporting 'the properly constituted Government of Spain and its magnificent working class defenders'.14

As this last quote indicates, the USM also stressed the legitimacy of the Republican government, describing it, for example, as 'the recognised and legally elected and properly constituted government of Spain'.15 This was also a feature of the APCF's response. Although the group had argued in the light of the attempted coup that 'Constitutionalism . . . has surely now proved a failure',16 there was nonetheless a strong element of constitutionalism in much of what the APCF wrote about Spain. For example, the APCF criticised the fascists for their 'breaches of international law' in attempting to overthrow 'an orthodox democratic government'.17

It was in such terms that both groups couched their appeals to the governments of other nation states (principally Britain and France) to intervene in the Civil War on the side of the Republican government. Guy Aldred criticised the British government for adopting a position of 'neutrality between a constitutional government and a fascist counter-revolutionary rebellion'.18 An article from a Spanish source published in the APCF's press called for an end to the British government's arms embargo: There is not a single convincing argument to prevent the supply of arms to the legally and democratically constituted government of Spain'.19 The APCF itself criticised the British government for refusing military aid to the Republic when 'the Spanish Government satisfies the legal requirements according to orthodox international legal standards'.20

The anti-parliamentarians' support for democracy against fascism, and their appeals to capitalist states to intervene in Spain, were taken to their logical conclusion in a leaflet published by the USM around the end of 1936. The author, T. L. Anderson, argued that Italy and Germany were frustrated at the deadlock in the Civil War and would soon embark on an outright invasion of Spain. If this happened the British government would then feel compelled to intervene militarily as well. In such circumstances, Anderson argued, 'the immediate purpose of the Spanish Workers and the British forces - the smashing of fascism - would be common to both. Where would be the logic of supporting one and opposing the other ... If war comes as a struggle between the Democratic and the Fascist states the duty of Socialists is to take a hand in it.'21 Encouraging the working class to identify its interests with those of 'its own' ruling class has always been an essential precondition for enlisting workers to fight in inter-capitalist wars, and there can be no escaping the fact that this was the role Anderson's argument would have played had the scenario he envisaged come about.

Ironically, only a few months earlier Anderson had written an anti-war article in which he had observed: 'It is a tribute to the power of words that millions of human slaves will march forth to slaughter each other in the most diabolical manner, at the behest of their oppressors. In 1914 it was "Gallant Little Belgium"; today it is "Defenceless Abyssinia"; tomorrow - what?'.22 The answer that Anderson had given to his own question would be put into words by USM member Ethel MacDonald in October 1937: 'Anti-Fascism is the new slogan by which the working class is being betrayed.'23

In their approach to co-operation with other organisations the anti-parliamentarians set aside long-established principles in favour of a single criterion: support for the Republic. If there had been a general election in 1936, as the USM demanded, and all anarchists and anti-parliamentarians had voted for all candidates standing against fascism, this would have entailed supporting, among other parties, the CPGB - the very organisation the APCF had been founded to oppose!

The APCF adopted a similarly unprincipled approach towards the anti-fascist alliance of republican and left wing organisations in Spain. In February 1937 the group published a pamphlet in which Frederica Montseny of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) defended the Spanish anarchists' co-operation with other parties on the minimal basis of support for the Republic: 'If on July 19th we had attempted, as we could have done, to proclaim Libertarian Communism in Catalonia, the results would have been disastrous . . . The fact is that we were the first to modify our aspirations, the first to understand that the struggle against international fascism was in itself great enough.' The same pamphlet also quoted another of Montseny's speeches in which she had said: 'In these tragic times, we must put aside our point of view, our ideological conditions, in order to realise the unity of all anti-fascists from the Republicans to the Anarchists.'24 The APCF endorsed these sentiments by publishing them without criticism. Clearly, therefore, the anti-parliamentarians' support for the Republican government entailed the indefinite postponement, or complete abandonment, of any revolutionary aspirations or principles.

Nevertheless, the need for unity among the various organisations claiming to represent the working class was one of the strongest lessons the APCF drew from the initial events of the Civil War. The way in which Republicans, Socialists, Communists and Anarchists had united to resist the fascist coup was held up as something worth emulating in Britain. In September and October 1936 the APCF urged 'All Unattached Anti-Parliamentarians, Socialists, Anarchist-Communists and Revolutionaries' to join in a 'genuine Revolutionary United Front' against 'the common enemy - international capitalism and fascism'.25 A small step in this direction was taken when the APCF and the London Freedom Group suspended publication of their respective journals in order to produce jointly the monthly Fighting Call.

The USM, however, paid little attention to the APCF's calls for unity. Indeed, from the beginning of the Civil War until spring 1937, relations between the APCF and the USM were extremely hostile, because of the fierce competition between the two groups to gain official recognition from the anarcho-syndicalist National Confederation of Labour (CNT), and to become the Spanish organisation's accredited representative in Britain. Guy Aldred was adamant that the CNT-FAI's British 'franchise' should be awarded to him, by virtue of his long record of commitment to the anarchist cause and because 'The United Socialist Movement was the first organisation in Great Britain to rally to the cause of the Spanish Workers, and to insist on the Anarchist character of the Spanish struggle'.26 Aldred poured scorn on the competing 'bid' of the APCF. Referring to the nineteen leaflets in the Regeneration series, he alleged that his rivals had 'never thought of Spain, till I started the leaflets'.27

This quarrel was complicated when Emma Goldman, who had dropped out of political activity in the late 1920s to earn a living by lecturing as a literary critic, suddenly reappeared in the anarchist movement after the outbreak of the Civil War and began to organise support for the CNT-FAI around herself, completely ignoring those such as Aldred who had maintained an active commitment to revolutionary activity during less thriving periods in the anarchist movement's fortunes.28 This stirred the resentment Aldred had felt towards Goldman ever since their bitter quarrel during 1924"”5 over whether or not the Bolsheviks were persecuting genuine revolutionaries. In Aldred's view Goldman was simply exploiting the Civil War in order to 'regain the position she lost through her petty-bourgeois careerism'.29 Furthermore, Aldred felt that Goldman and the Freedom Group - and thus, by association, the APCF too - were conspiring to settle old scores and force him out of the anarchist movement.30

All things considered, therefore, Aldred was not at all pleased when the role of officially representing the CNT-FAI in Britain was assigned to a Bureau in London closely associated with Freedom and the APCF.

Yet the APCF's success in gaining the CNT-FAI's official 'blessing' rebounded to its own disadvantage in the end, as it turned the group into little more than a 'servicing organisation' for the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists. The Fighting Call, and Advance when it resumed publication, both consisted almost entirely of material lifted directly from the CNT-FAI Boletin de Informacion, with no critical comments added and hardly any editorial articles written by the APCF itself. By confining themselves to such activity the APCF made practically no direct contribution towards the development of a more critical attitude to what was happening in Spain, whereas the USM, because it was less restricted in its allegiance to the CNT-FAI, was able to do so.


In September 1936 Regeneracion published an appeal from Guy Aldred's French comrade Andre Prudhommeaux, who was now in Barcelona working for the CNT-FAI, asking for arms, money and trained soldiers to be sent to Spain, and for the anarcho-syndicalist ideas of the CNT-FAI to be publicised in Britain.31 Although it was Aldred's ambition to see an Anti-Parliamentary 'Column' sent from Glasgow,32 Prudhommeaux suggested a much smaller delegation. Accordingly, Ethel MacDonald was chosen to make the journey to Spain, accompanied by Jane Patrick, who had been invited by the CNT in her personal capacity as an experienced printer.33 Although Patrick had been a member of the APCF since its formation, she did not go to Spain as its official delegate. For some obscure reason the APCF disowned her when she left for Spain, and while she was there she was supported from funds raised by the USM.

MacDonald and Patrick left Glasgow on 19 October 1936, travelling via Nimes where a base relatively close to the Spanish border could be provided by Prudhommeaux's comrades. After arriving in Barcelona, however, they soon encountered problems. A letter from the APCF disowning Patrick had arrived ahead of them, and they immediately fell under suspicion. Back in Glasgow there was an angry confrontation between USM and APCF members, which resulted in the APCF dispatching a second letter to explain that while they no longer considered Patrick to be a member of their group they had not intended to cast doubt on her integrity as a revolutionary.34 Their credentials thus established, Patrick served for a time on the Committee of Defence in Madrid, while MacDonald worked for the Information in Foreign Languages section at the CNT-FAI headquarters in Barcelona, where she made regular English-language broadcasts on the CNT Radio Barcelona.

The pair also kept in regular contact with their comrades in Glasgow, and their first-hand reports of what was happening in Spain gradually began to put forward a very different view of the issues at stake in the Civil War, compared to the position that the anti-parliamentary groups had thus far adopted.

Although the APCF had argued in May 1936 that only through the mass pressure of its own strikes and demonstrations could the working class hope to gain anything for itself, during the rest of 1936 the anti-parliamentarians had neglected this principle and put most of their energy into urging various governments to act on the working class's behalf. What impressed Ethel MacDonald, however, was the way in which the Spanish workers, rather than relying on the politicians of the Republican government to resist the fascist coup, had immediately set about organising and fighting the Civil War on their own initiative. In this sense the Civil War was 'the living demonstration of the power of the proletariat, the living truth of the force of direct action'.3S MacDonald reversed the relative emphases that the anti-parliamentarians had placed on parliamentary and governmental action as opposed to the direct action of the workers themselves - she argued that 'We know too well that Capitalism will never assist us'36 - and urged 'direct action in solidarity with the Spanish struggle by workers in other lands. How? By sending arms, yes; but by the social revolution primarily.'37 This line of thought was taken up by Guy Aldred. In February 1937 he wrote: 'Parliamentarism will not save the Spanish workers' struggle, which is our struggle. Only Direct Action can do that . . . Liquidate Parliamentarism in Anti-Parliamentarism. Translate words into act. Face Fascism with determination, industrial solidarity, and the Social General Strike.'38 The USM also began to reassess the issues at stake in the Civil War. Previously it had been seen as a straight fight between democracy and fascism, with little attention paid to the point that these were simply two competing forms of political rule based on the same underlying capitalist society. In February 1937, however, Ethel MacDonald pointed out that 'Fascism ... is but another name for Capitalism',39 while Guy Aldred made these remarks about the democratic face of the capitalist Janus:

The official government slogan in Spain is 'the democratic republic'. This means capitalism, even if of a liberal, reformist type. It means exploitation, even though in a less oppressive form than under Franco. Hence, this slogan does not express the aspirations in the civil war, of at least a large section of the Spanish masses. They want, not democratic capitalism, but no capitalism; they want to make a workers' revolution, and establish workers' collectivism.40

After this criticism of what the Republican forces were fighting for had been made, slogans in support of the Spanish government became as rare in the USM's press in 1937 as they had been common in 1936, and CNT-FAI leaders such as Frederica Montseny were criticised retrospectively for having joined the Republican government formed by Largo Caballero in November 1936.41

Meanwhile, although the USM was revising its position on Spain at a much faster rate and becoming more openly critical of the CNT-FAI than the APCF was, after reaching their nadir during the winter of 1936-7 relations between the USM and APCF began to improve. This may have been due in part to Frank Leech's resignation from the APCF around April 1937. There was no love lost between Leech and members of the USM, and his presence in the APCF was frequently cited as a stumbling block in the way of closer co-operation. The reason for Leech's departure from the APCF is obscure. In May 1937, under the name of the 'Anti-Parliamentary Volunteers', he published a pamphlet called The Truth about Barcelona, based entirely on a Boletin de Information received from the CNT-FAI.42 In August 1937 he formed the Glasgow Anarchist-Communist Federation, which became part of the Glasgow Group of the Anarchist Federation of Britain during the Second World War. and will be discussed in the following chapter.

The friendlier relations which had begun to exist between the APCF and the USM became evident in May 1937, when the two groups co-operated to publish the one-off Barcelona Bulletin. This consisted mainly of Jane Patrick and Ethel MacDonald's eye-witness accounts and analysis of the week of street fighting in Barcelona between the Stalinist-dominated Generalitat (regional government of Catalonia) on one side and the CNT-FAI and the 'Trotskyist' POUM on the other. It was one of the first publications to describe what had happened during the 'May Days' from a point of view sympathetic to the CNT-FAI and the POUM. The Barcelona Bulletin also contained an article titled 'Win The War! - But Also The Revolution' by Willie McDougall of the APCF, which seems to have been one of the few occasions on which a member of the APCF argued against defence of the Republic and in favour of revolution.43

Jane Patrick left Spain immediately after the May Days and arrived back in Glasgow towards the end of the month. In 1938 she joined the USM. Ethel MacDonald stayed on in Spain and at one point was arrested and imprisoned by the Generalitat, charged with having revolutionary literature in her possession and an out-of-date residence permit. In view of the Stalinist repression directed against the CNT-FAI and POUM in the aftermath of the May Days, 'considerable anxiety regarding [Ethel MacDonald's] welfare' was 'felt by her relatives and comrades' in Glasgow.44 The APCF took the initiative in forming an Ethel MacDonald Defence Committee, in which the USM also participated.45 Eventually MacDonald was released unharmed, escaped from Spain at the beginning of September 1937, and after visiting comrades in France and Holland en route arrived back in Glasgow in November. The Defence Committee was disbanded after learning that MacDonald was out of danger, but the anti-parliamentarians continued to campaign for action in support of CNT-FAI and POUM prisoners and refugees right up to, and indeed after, the end of the Civil War.

After the Barcelona Bulletin the USM published no other journals, apart from single issues of the Word (May 1938) and Hyde Park (September 1938), until May 1939, when the threat of world war provided the impetus for the Word to be revived and another spell of sustained activity began. The APCF's press took over the role of providing a forum for the continued development of the critical attitude towards the Civil War pioneered by members of the USM.

In September 1937, for example, the APCF's Workers' Free Press reprinted an article from International Council Correspondence. This argued that the CNT-FAI's anti-fascist alliance with the Socialist and Communist Parties had been 'a united front with capitalism, which can only be a united front for capitalism'. Anti-fascism amounted to telling the working class to 'co-operate with one enemy in order to crush another, in order later to be crushed by the first':

The People's Front is not a lesser evil for the workers, it is only another form of capitalist dictatorship in addition to Fascism . . . from the viewpoint of the interests of the Spanish workers, as well as of the workers of the world, there is no difference between Franco-Fascism and Moscow-Fascism, however much difference there may be between Franco and Moscow . . . The revolutionary watchword for Spain is: Down with the Fascists and also down with the Loyalists.46

The following month the APCF published an article that Ethel MacDonald had sent from Barcelona in August 1937, which also opposed the anti-fascist alliance with democratic capitalism in favour of social revolution against all forms of capitalist domination:

Fascism is not something new, some new force of evil opposed to society, but is only the old enemy, Capitalism, under a new and fearful sounding name . . . Under the guise of 'Anti-Fascism' elements are admitted to the working class movement whose interests are still diametrically opposed to those of the workers . . .Anti-Fascism is the new slogan by which the working class is being betrayed.47

In the second issue of Solidarity, successor to the Workers' Free Press, the APCF published an unsigned report received from Spain. Surveying the previous two years of the Civil War, it argued: 'All this could have been avoided (2 million dead) if the workers had taken control and eliminated the government, thus killing at one stroke, a great force that has been working with Franco all along the line. The proletariat of Spain was lulled into political unconsciousness by the government which was supposed to be leading it.' The article described the Popular Front as a 'capitalist government'.

However, the very same issue of Solidarity also contained several hangovers from the position adopted by the APCF during the initial period of the Civil War. On the front page there was an appeal from the CNT-FAI, calling for 'GENERAL STRIKES TO MAKE THE GOVERNMENTS RECOGNISE THE LEGAL RIGHTS OF THE SPANISH PEOPLE'. Elsewhere there was a resolution from the Earnock branch of the Lanarkshire Miners' Union, calling on the TUC to 'declare a General Strike until the legal right to purchase arms has been restored to the Spanish Government' by the British government. Another article criticised the British government's 'damnable treachery to Loyalist Spain' - 'Loyalists' being supporters of the Republican government described elsewhere in the paper as capitalist and anti-working class!48

Thus the APCF never shook itself entirely free of its original attitude towards events in Spain. In its various publications nearly all the articles that adopted a revolutionary position originated outside the group; with Ethel MacDonald, the International Council Correspondence group, or the dissident CNT-FAI faction, The Friends Of Durruti, whose view of the Civil War, concluding that 'Democracy defeated the Spanish people, not Fascism', was published in Solidarity in mid-1939.49


After more than a decade of counter-revolution, the outbreak of the Civil War in Spain aroused the anti-parliamentarians in Britain almost as much as the revolution in Russia had done nearly 20 years before. But the alacrity with which they seized hold of its radical veneer of spontaneity and direct action was matched by the torpor that characterised their analysis of the struggle's real political and social content. As the events of the Civil War unfolded, the issues at stake became clearer. The USM went furthest in rejecting its initial support for Republican capitalism, and in developing a revolutionary attitude to events. The APCF itself showed few signs that it was capable of carrying out a comparably rigorous critique of its own position, but took vicarious credit from publishing the views of groups such as the one around International Council Correspondence. As we will see in the following chapter, by the time of the outbreak of the Second World War the ideas developed in a rudimentary way by some of the anti-parliamentarians since 1937 put them in a much stronger position to respond in a revolutionary manner than they had been at the start of the war in Spain. Although it was not until the war years themselves that the anti-parliamentarians' critique of democracy, fascism and anti-fascism reached a more coherent level, sufficient groundwork had been carried out to ensure that there would be no farcical repetition in 1939 of the tragic position adopted by the anti-parliamentary communists in 1936.