Review: Connolly Column
Thanks to Liam and Peter for organising permission to reprint this piece. This is an anonymous article, and neither of the activists with the IRSP could identify who the author was after a 20 year gap. CC.
"The Starry Plough is proud to
present the following contribution. Our contributor is a contemporary of
Michael O'Riordan and a former member of the Communist Party. He is a
committed Republican Socialist and has played a leading role in the
national liberation struggle. - Ed."
[The Starry Plough was the newspaper of the
Irish Republican Socialist Party]
The appearance of the book "Connolly Column",
written by Michael O'Riordan or "Screw-back" as he was
affectionately known by those of us who had the honour of being his
friends, is a most important and timely contribution to the literature
recording the development of the revolutionary working class struggle in
Ireland. This is the story of a small band of Irish who - for the sake of
their Internationalist ideas, their love of liberty and hatred of fascism
died in the blood-drenched olive fields of Spain exhalting brotherhood and
freedom. Their achievements and battle honours are recorded in gold on the
banners of the Spanish Republic. It is particularly appropriated this
moment in history when Irish republican socialists are locked in the most
successful and prolonged armed struggle for socialism and national
liberation ever waged against the forces of imperialism in Ireland that we
should have the opportunity of reading about the exploits of these brave
and clear-sighted men. They stood on the far edge of history and against
overwhelming odds, within living memory they have made the name of Ireland
a symbol of the worldwide anti-fascist struggle. How proud we in the IRSP,
in particular, are of this noble heritage and from it gain fresh
inspiration on our own Herculean tasks. They were the most generous and
delightful of men, of whom it can truly be said that they were of the
mould of heroes. Michael O'Riordan's book must be praised as the first
historical document that portrays the role of Irish Republican Socialists
against the background of an Irish reactionary society and the rising tide
of fascism on the International scene. O'Riordan's analysis of the Spanish
War and its political background and this reviewer's do not coincide, but
having said that, it is indispensable reading for those who would
understand the significance of "Connolly Column" in the history
of the Irish revolutionary movement.
THE RISEN PEOPLE
In spite of the deaths of millions of Spanish people,
in spite of the sacrifices of the International Brigades, the heroism of
the 5th Regiment and Communists at Madrid, the incredible bravery of the
Anarchists and Poum militias in Catalonia, fascism in the end won a
victory which was to enslave Spain for many decades. The question must be
asked and answered, why was this victory achieved? We need to search for
the answer in the political strategy and tactics, which were adopted in
this, the most political of all wars. To understand the forces involved we
must go back to July 18th 1936, when the first fighting broke out. That
fighting sent a thrill of hope through Europe. Here at last was a people
and a Government standing up to the hitherto unresisted march of fascism.
For years the capitalist democracies had been
surrendering to Fascism at every step. The Japanese swallowed Manchuria.
Hitler seized power and massacred his opponents. Mussolini had bombed and
gassed the Abyssinians, but when Franco tried to overthrow a mildly
left-wing Government, the people had risen against him. At last the tide
was turning. Resistance was replacing supine surrender.
Franco was not of course a carbon copy of Hitler or
Mussolini. His was a military rising backed by the Church and the
aristocracy and was an attempt to restore feudalism. There was none of the
Right-Wing Radicalism associated with the Hitlerites about him. This meant
that not only was he opposed by the working class but also some sections
of the liberal bourgeoisie who would normally support fascism in its
modern form. The Spanish people did not just resist in the name of
democracy and the status quo, it was a revolutionary resistance. Land was
seized by the peasants, factories and means of transport were seized by
the trade unions.
For the first few months the trade unions were the main
resistance against Franco. The Unions called a General strike, demanded
arms and after a struggle got them from the arsenals. If they had not
acted so spontaneously it is at least possible that Franco would have been
surrendered to. The Government was aware for months that the rising was
planned and made little effort to forestall it. The arming of the workers
was agreed too reluctantly. However once the arms were in the hands of the
people, fascism was defeated in Eastern Spain. There were as many as 3,000
casualties in one day. The peasants seized the land and local Soviets were
set up. The Anarchists and Socialists were not doing this to preserve
capitalist democracy but rather to create a better society. Of course,
this: process was not uniform. In some areas local Government remained
unchanged, side by side with areas ruled by revolutionary committees. In
some places Anarchists set up Communes. These were suppressed by force by
the Government in 1937.
Anarchism was and is deeply rooted in Spain, especially
in Catalonia. The huge amalgam of trade unions making up the CNT (National
Confederation Workers) numbering more than two million members. At that
time they were organised politically in the FAI (Federacion Anarquiste
Ibernica). During the first months of the war, it was the Anarchists who
played the major role in saving the situation and their Militias were
brave, if undisciplined, fighters. Michael O'Riordan, this reviewer
believes, reflects the views held of the Anarchists by the pro-Moscow
Communists of that time.
At first it was not just a Civil War but the
commencement of a revolution. This was concealed and the issue was
presented as Fascism versus Democracy. Except for small groups, the world
was united in preventing revolution in Spain. On the left the Communist
Party had put its full force against Revolution with the co-operation of
the 3rd International and the Soviet Union. The Communist strategy was
that revolution at this time would be fatal and the aim should be
bourgeois democracy and not socialism.
Liberal capitalism naturally supported the Communist
line - British capital to the tune of £10 million, in one Company alone
in Barcelona. If the revolution progressed, there would be no compensation
for foreign capitalists; on the other hand, if the CP line prevailed
investments would be safe. In the early days, the Government of Caballero
and the autonomous Catalan Governments were representative of the working
class but there then began a steady drift to the right. One year after the
outbreak of the war, Legrin, a Right-Wing Socialist himself, headed a
Government consisting of Right-Wing Socialists, Liberals and Communists.
This swing to the right coincided with the flow of arms from the USSR and
power moved from the Anarchists. With the exception of aid from the USSR
and Mexico, the Spanish people were denied arms to defend themselves, and
Mexico's ability in this field was limited. This left the USSR in a
position to compel the Government to adopt the CP strategy. There was
tremendous gratitude to the USSR for the arms and with the arrival of the
lnternational Brigades, the CP strategy looked capable of winning. The war
itself gave the Communist Party tremendous prestige.
However the Communists and their allies saw to it that
those who supported the pro-revolutionary line were denied arms, namely
the Anarchists, the left-wing Socialists and the POUM militias. Michael's
remark that the Anarchists behaved more as caretakers than combatants
should be viewed in the light of the above denial of Soviet weapons. The
Anarchists, despite their many foibles, were notoriously the best fighters
amongst the Spanish comrades. An immense amount of misunderstanding could
have been avoided if people had realised that on the Government side the
CP stood to the Right, in France too, the tactics of the CP made it clear
that the 3rd International was following Anti-Revolution strategy.
Comintern policy at the time was directed towards the defence of the USSR.
The USSR was in military alliance with Imperialist France and the Spanish
Communists, fully conscious of this were not going to support the
revolutionary line of liberation and independence for Spanish Morocco.
In fact the Communists went a great deal further than
the Allies against the anti-Stalin commands.
Among the many Comrades who paid with their lives in
this strife was an Irishman. What a tragedy, that men who had risked all
to come to Spain's help should die at the hands not of the fascists but of
those they regarded as comrades.
The suppression of the POUM who were anti-Stalin
communists and were described as being Fascist agents in the pay of the
capitalists, was followed by wholesale arrests in Barcelona. Many
disappeared into secret jails and were never seen again, including Andreas
Nin and hundreds of the Lenin Division (29th) as well as scores of
foreigners. One of these, Bob Smillie, aged 22 years, had abandoned his
career at Glasgow University to fight fascism, which he did with
outstanding courage, only to be flung into jail in Valencia where he died.
He was buried immediately. An Independent Labour Party representative was
refused permission to see the body. A brother of Niall Gould also
disappeared at the time. Niall Gould told this reviewer that he believed
him to be executed. None of these happenings, motivated as they seemed to
be by blind malice, did anything but harm the effectiveness of the war and
the morale of the people.
The Communist Party line at the time was as follows:
"At present nothing matters except to win the war. We cannot afford
to frighten the peasants by collectivising them. We cannot afford to
frighten the middle classes who are fighting on our side. For the sake
of efficiency we must have no revolutionary chaos. A strong central
Government in place of Committees, a militarised army with unified
command. Clinging on to fragments of workers control and parroting
revolutionary phrases is counter-revolutionary, it leads to divisions
which can be used against us by the fascists. We are fighting for
parliamentary democracy. Whoever tries to turn the war into a social
revolution is playing into the hands of the fascists and is in effect,
if not in intention, a traitor."
The revolutionary line agreed with this on only one
point, the necessity of winning the war. After that point, it held that
"it is nonsense to talk of opposing fascism by "bourgeois
democracy" which is only another name for capitalism. To fight
against fascism on behalf of "democracy" is to fight against
one form of capitalism on behalf of a second, which is liable to turn
into the first at any moment! The only real alternative to fascism is
workers control. If the goal is less, then the victory will either be
handed to Franco or at best fascism will creep in by the back door.
Meanwhile the workers must cling to every inch they have won. If they
yield anything to the semi-bourgeois Government then they can depend
upon being cheated. The workers militia and police force must be
preserved in their present form and every effort to "de-proletarianise"
them must be resisted. If the workers do not control the armed forces,
then the armed forces will control the workers. The war and the
revolution are inseparable."
The anarchists stood for direct control over industry
by the workers in that industry, Government by Committees, resistance to
all forms of centralised authoritarianism, and uncompromising hostility to
the bourgeois and the Church.
THE MILITARY SOLUTION
The Communists held that the war came first, and they
had their way. The war was fought in a conventional manner and was decided
by logistics. The proximity of Italy and Germany enabled them to flood
Franco-occupied Spain with tanks, planes and ordinance which the USSR
couldn't match, for geographical reasons, until early 1939. The war ended.
The fascists were allowed into Madrid by the treachery of the bourgeois
elements in the Army.
General Miama surrendered at Madrid on his own
initiative with his troops intact and not as the result of a Fascist
offensive. As regards the war being lost, this of course was true even as
far back as the failure of the battle of the Ebro. Michael O'Riordan told
this writer that it became obvious to him after the Ebro that the war was
not going to end in victory for the Republic.
WAR AND REVOLUTION
The long dark night fell on this heroic and splendid
people who had struggled so gallantly and so long. By 1937 Franco
controlled a much larger population than the Republic with approximately
the same number of troops. A revolutionary war would have released
large-scale resistance in Franco's rear and an insurrection in Spanish
Morocco. The Republic would have recognised Moroccan Independence. These
two things alone would have cut Franco's troops at the front by half. The
greatest strategic opportunity to win the war was lost in a vain attempt
to placate the USSR's fair weather Imperialist Allies. The slogan that
"the war and the revolution are one" was as correct for the
Spanish people as it is for the Irish people in this struggle for national
liberation and socialism.
Several documents with reviews of books on Ireland and the SCW
- A compilation of reviews by Barry McLoughlin
- Jim Monaghan, a Dublin socialist did reviews of several books, inc. 2 on Charlie Donnelly, and Strong Words, Brave Deeds about Thomas O'Brien, a Dublin vol.
- Manus O'Riordan reviews of 4 books, inc. 2 by Richard Baxwell and the Spanish edition of Bob Doyles memoirs.
- Frank Ryan - Written by Fearghal McGarry,
Given the importance of the subject I thought I should make available all the reviews I'd come across, this ended up with 4!!
Reviewed by Robert Stradling and 3 slightly different reviews by Manus O'Riordan using the general title, F Ryan - Patriot or collaborator?. These are reviewed in History Ireland, Irish Literary Supplement - A Review of Irish Books (Boston) and the other from May-June July 2003 issue of The Irish Democrat.
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