Review: Connolly Column
Aibrean/April 1980

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 Michael O'Riordan's book must be praised as the first historical document that portrays the role of Irish Republican Socialists against the background of an Irish reactionary society and the rising tide of fascism on the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.


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 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.


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