“A rather one sided fight”

The Worker and the Spanish Civil War

A document study from Saothar, Vol. 23, 1998.

By Pete Jackson[1]

On July 1936, Irish newspapers began printing reports of serious disturbances in Spain; on 17 July insurgents led by Generals Mola and Franco had risen against the recently elected Popular Front government. The insurgents, or nationalists as they became known, seized Spanish Morocco and areas in the South, West and North of the country. Caught off guard, the government struggled to effect a defence. However, organized workers quickly formed militia units, and prevented the insurgents from capturing the major cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Bilbao. The fighting continued for almost three years and was to have a profound influence on the European political climate.

In Ireland the overriding consideration amongst the Catholic population was for the plight of the Spanish Church. The Catholic Church in Spain, unlike its Irish counterpart, owned considerable land, and, considering itself under threat from the policies of the Popular Front Government, had given its support to Franco’s Nationalists. Consequently a deep resentment existed towards the Church amongst the Spanish workers, and this led to hostility and at time violence. As reports filtered through of atrocities committed by the ‘Reds’ against the Church, public opinion in Ireland assumed almost hysterical proportions. The cause of Republican Spain seemed overwhelmed by clerical condemnation. While the Fianna Fáil government remained neutral, the opposition and virtually all the press were vociferously pro-Franco[2]. Only the radical left offered any cohesive support for the government in Spain. A Spanish Aid Committee was formed by leading members of the republican, socialist and Communist movements. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was chairwoman [As was the norm in the 1930’s, she was actually referred in the press as Chairman, CC] and other members included John Swift, Nora Connolly-O’Brien, Dorothy Macardle, Ernie O’Malley and Fr Michael O’ Flanagan.

Of all the organisations backing the Republic, only the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) was producing a paper. To fill the gap caused by the demise of the Workers’ Voice, the CPI started to publish a small duplicated, four page weekly called the Worker. Costing one penny and edited by Séan Murray[3], the General Secretary of the CPI, the Worker was a shoestring operation published from 32 Lower Ormond Quay, and ran for only thirty six issues from 11 July 1936 to 13 March 1937. This study will examine four salient and controversial features of the Worker’s Spanish coverage: its treatment of class and religion, its response to pro-Franco forces, and its criticism of the Labour Party.

A class analysis?

Just a week after the General’s revolt, the Worker was interpreting the conflict in class terms:

In Spain, as we write, a new and immortal page of working class history is being inscribed. The reports printed by the capitalist press are like a dust cloud obscuring the fighters as they strain in combat, but from the glimpses of truth we can picture the rest; the heart of working class Ireland goes out to our Spanish brothers and Sisters in their life-and-death struggle with fascism. (27/7/36)

However, in a reflection of both the Comintern’s popular front strategy and Murray’s appraisal of the prevalent mood in the free State, the article clarified the composition of the republican Government:

Socialists, Communists, Republicans, Syndicalists had all come together in a People’s Front. They did not hide their differences from each other, but they set out to find a basis of unit that would lift from the Spanish masses the hated murder regime…The Government elected…was neither Socialist nor Communist. It was Republican, with a middle class Premier. The Communist and Socialist parties did not enter the Government but promised full support in carrying out the People’s Front policies.

As more news filtered through to Ireland, and the press confirmed its pro-Franco position, Murray struggled to publicise the ‘TRUTH ABOUT SPAIN’ from a class standpoint:

The Spanish people are fighting gallantly in defence of the Republican against the conspiracy of scoundrels led by the landlords sons in the army and supported by the heads of the banking families in Spain. It is a Fascists rebellion against a Government constitutionally elected by the Spanish people. It is a conspiracy of militarists, landlords and bankers to assassinate democracy, to destroy liberty, to rob the Spanish workers and peasants and set up the rule off Fascist murder over the great Spanish nation…. It is an uprising of the rich against the poor. (1/8/36)

Murray initially interpreted the outbreak of the conflict in purely class terms, but as the war continued and the situation became more complex, the Worker’s analysis evolved. Milotte contends that, following the popular front line, a class critique was abandoned:

The workers revolt was a nightmare to the communist leadership, who, in place of the social revolution that was proceeding around them, argued that the only way to defeat fascism was to restore and defend bourgeois democracy…As the official Comintern response to the Spanish events filtered through…the Worker abandoned its class-based analysis of fascism. Franco’s allies were no longer depicted as the employers and the landlords but as a ‘tiny clique of conspirators’ whose strength lay not in the support they enjoyed from the property-owning classes but only from the military aid they received from Hitler and Mussolini. The epithets now used to describe them – corrupt, reactionary, barbaric and anti Christian – had been cleansed of all class connotations, while the whole outcome of the struggle was now said to depend not on the militancy of the Spanish workers but on which side – government or fascists – had superior firepower.[4]

Milotte’s appraisal is an overstatement. Undoubtedly, the Worker was influenced by the prevailing popular front policy. As the conflict developed, it apportioned greater importance to foreign intervention than the strength of the property-owning classes, but this was an accurate reflection of the significance of increased involvement by both Germany and Italy, which swung the tide in favour of Franco’s forces. The paper continued to espouse a class interpretation. In November, under the heading ‘What is Fascism?’, the Worker answered: ‘Is Franco and his gang Fascist? Of course they are. They are out to set up a dictatorship in Spain over the workers and peasants…In whose interests? In the interests of the millionaire financiers and landowners.’(7/11/36) And, in a celebration of the defence of Madrid, the Worker boasted on 28 November: ‘Franco and the men of property in Spain and elsewhere are learning how men can fight when freedom is their cause.’ This class-based interpretation was important to the CPI’s domestic politics. In the same issue it defined its target constituency: ‘The Spanish people must get the support of all Irish Trade Unionists, Republicans, Labour and Communist workers, ex servicemen and democrats.’

Throughout its existence the Worker continued to advocate a class analysis of the conflict. Milotte’s claim that the paper was ‘cleansed of all class connotations’, and that ‘Franco’s allies were no longer depicted as the employers and landlords…’ is directly contradicted by the very last issue which referred to the war as ‘the generals –landlords-foreign Fascists’ conspiracy.’[5]

The use of religion

Almost immediately, the radical left appreciated the significance of the religious issue. In the pages of the Worker, a communist paper, religion featured ubiquitously. Every attempt was made to negate perceived opinion regarding the religious nature of the conflict. To counter the prominence given by the press and the Catholic hierarchy to the threat to the Spanish Church, the Worker adopted a number of tactics.

One was to emphasise how religion had been misused in Irish history.

(Do) not to be misled into believing that this is a religious issue in Spain. It is no more a religious issue than was the Irish Land War, the struggle for Home Rule, the fight for complete independence. But what did the aristocracy of this country say the fight was about? Religion, of course! Home Rule is Rome Rule, roared the landed Ascendancy and their hirelings, the generals and lawyers. 'We are fighting for religious freedom!', shouted Carson, Craigavon and General Gough…(15 August 1936)

Under the heading ‘Priests were murdered in Ireland too it described:

'Horrible outrages on priests and nuns.' 'Christianity in danger.' You can read the atrocity stories about Spain in the papers every day. You can always read about any country where the people are fighting for their liberty. The very same lies have been told about Ireland by the press owned by the employer-landlord class. Yes, the world has been told that the Irish people were 'murdering priests' too. (12 September 1936)

The paper continued with an account of how during the Easter Rising the English press started a rumour in Ireland that Pearse and Clarke had murdered Archbishop Walsh.

The Worker also maintained that Communism was not an enemy of the Catholic Church and even suggested that Communists were more Christian than Franco’s Fascists! Milotte has suggested that:

This attempt to appeal to Christian sentiment was not a peculiarly Irish phenomenon to be explained in terms of the exceedingly harsh Catholic reaction confronting Ireland’s communists. The Communist Party in Britain carried on a similar campaign, although the clerical backlash there was minimal. It was in fact a universal feature of the Popular front strategy.

If this use of religion was not ‘a peculiarly Irish phenomenon’, it was nevertheless, particularly relevant to the home front. It therefore assumes a greater significance in Ireland than elsewhere, and must go some way to explaining the extent of religious coverage in such a small communist paper. To have fascism continually portrayed as Christian in the press drove the Worker at times to contradict itself. Where only a week earlier Murray had denied any religious context to the conflict, on 22 August, the Worker headlined with:

Franco's Moors Massacre Christian Workers
O'Duffy to join with the Moorish murderers

THE PEOPLE OF SPAIN - the real people, the workers, peasants and middle classes - continue in their heroic struggle to defend their democratic liberties against the Fascist Black Hundreds……We are told the Spanish Fascists are fighting for Christianity. And to wage their 'Christian' war they employ the heathen Moors and the scum in the Foreign Legion - the dregs of humanity. (22 August 1936)

This article offered only inconsistently and coarse propaganda, and mirrored the hysteria in the right wing press. A more considered piece appeared the following week alluding to the formation of O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade and the so-called Christianity of the fascists:

O’Duffy and his ‘Christian’ Front are organising a ‘Brigade’ of Irishmen to fight with Generals Franco and Mola at the head of the Mohammedans against the Spanish Government and people. Why? The following ‘Christian’ programme issued by Generals Franco and Mol, gives the answer. The Generals declare their aims to be:

·         The establishment of a military dictatorship.

·         The dissolution of parliament and the Trade Unions.

·         The suppression of the Left Press (Labour, Republican, Communist, etc.)

·         Denial of the right to strike for better wages, etc.

·         Restoration of landlords estates divided up by previous governments among the small farmers.

·         The trial of all Left-Wing leaders.

·         A vote for the return of the Monarchy.

This is the ‘Christian’ programme that the Murphys of the ‘Independent’ and their tool, O’Duffy, and his henchmen want Irishmen to go crusading for. (29 August 1936)

The Worker was, however, prepared to go to any length to establish its own Christian credentials. On 10 October 1936, in ‘peculiarly Irish’ fashion, it called upon the saints for endorsement, quoting St Ambrose;

Nature furnishes wealth to all men in common. God beneficently has created all things that their enjoyment be common to all living things, and that the earth become the common possession of all. It is nature itself that has given birth to the right of the community, whilst it is only unjust usurpation that has created the right of private property. (10 0ctober 1936)

If there remained any doubt that God was truly a Communist, St Gregory the great was cited: ‘The earth of which they are born is common to all and therefore the fruit that the earth brings forth belongs without distinction to all.’ (10 0ctober 1936) It would be surprising if the British Communist party invoked the saints to justify its stand.

Another essential element of the use of religion by the Worker was the coverage given to prominent Catholics who spoke out against Franco. Wherever possible the views of these Catholics were expressed in the paper. If a Catholic opinion was unavailable any Christian denomination would be utilised. The radical left was given a boost by support from Fr Michael O’Flanagan, who ‘stepped out of his study to take the platform and face the Irish people with the most devastating cry that ever rose above the roar of Irish politics, ‘They have fooled you again’.[6] O’Flanagan had always been associated with the national struggle, and enjoyed a considerable republican pedigree, having delivered the funeral speech for the lying-in-state of O’Donovan Rossa at Dublin’s City Hall and often been in confrontation with the Catholic hierarchy for his republicanism. His defence of the Spanish Republic was not altogether surprising. However, a year earlier he had clashed with the CPI over his support for Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, which he described as ‘one of the most heroic episodes in t4eh history of the human race.’[7] These inconsistencies were put aside in the common cause of Spain. Fr O’Flanagan became a leading figure in the Spanish Aid Committee and was often asked to speak at meetings. The Worker frequently reported his speeches:

The fight in Spain is a fight between the rich privileged classes against the rank and file of the poor oppressed people of Spain. The cause being fought for in Spain was near us than was realised. The Foreign Legion and Moorish troops were to Spain what the Black and Tans were to Ireland. The Spaniards didn’t send any people to join the Black and Tans here and they didn’t make collections in their churches to help the Black and Tans in Ireland. (12 December 1936)

That was the language of the Worker and therefore any differences with O’Flanagan were easily ignored. With such small support the radical left was not, at least at this stage, about to create any internal divisions.

The arrival in Ireland of Fr Ramon Laborda presented the pro-Spanish Republican lobby with a propaganda coup. The support for the Spanish government of the Catholic Basques was not widely appreciated in Ireland. That their clergy also backed the government surprised some even within the radical left. In an interview with Margaret Ward in 1992, Nora Harkin recalled: ‘The first time I discovered there was a priest on the (Spanish) Republican side was Ambrose martin (Ramon Laborda) in 1936, met him up in Hanna Sheehy-Skeffngton’s…always telling you he was not Spanish, he was Basque.’ [8] The priest had promised George Gilmore earlier that year he would visit Ireland, and he was good to his word. Meetings were arranged swiftly and maximum coverage given in the Worker to the words of Fr Laborda:

Many really think general Franco is a defender of Christianity, but already 13 Basque priests have been put to death by Franco’s forces. The war, said Fr Laborda, is not religious, nor were the elections before it concerned with religion. The Left Wing had beaten the right Wing with votes, and now the Rights were trying to beat them with guns. (23 January 1937)

In a speech entirely devoted to refuting the claims of the reactionary press, Fr Laborda continued:

I will explain, but by no means justify, the burning of churches after the elections…Before the elections came on, many of the churches and Services were used by Fascists priests as an opportunity for political meetings…When I read recently that the Catholics of Ireland were offering men and money to Fascist Franco- the personification of the most brutal imperialism, I exclaimed, indignantly: ‘it is impossible! Ireland could not do that unless she had been miserably deceived.’ (23 January 1937)

Unfortunately Fr Laborda spoke little English. Nora Harkin recalls that, although in 1932 he ‘had sung in the Pro-Cathedral and had stayed in Milltown with the Jesuits and was feted and was very popular…when he came back in 1936, memories had shortened, he wasn’t remembered..’[9] While he failed to influence the Catholic hierarchy, his mere appearance was important for the radical left and he continued to speak to republican audiences.

Throughout the rest of its brief life, religion dominated the pages of the Worker. A week wouldn’t go by without headlines such as Murphy’s ‘Christians’ as Union Wreckers (19 Sept 1936), Archbishop doubts atrocity stories (7 November 1936), Spanish priest attacks rebels (19 December 1936) and Priest indicts ‘religious’ robbers (6 March 1937).[10] Once considered the epitome f imperialism, the Irish Times was now lauded for its coverage of the conflict, I line with the popular front policy of emphasising the respectability of the Spanish government. The pro-Franco forces were therefore extensive, and included the Irish Independent, General O’Duffy, the newly formed Christian Front (ostensibly a non-party anti-communist organisation), the Catholic hierarchy, and even at times the Fianna Fail government and the Irish Press. A great deal of energy was utilised attempting to counter them.

On 8 August, the Worker declared ‘Poison pens at work on Spain’ and continued:

If poison pens could kill, the Spanish people would have been defeated long ago. Not since the Russian revolution has a people battling for its liberty been so lied about and slandered by the capitalist press. The ‘Irish Press’ and ‘Independent’ have never acted more foully than they are acting on Spain.

The Worker ran a series, devoted to refuting reactionary press stories. Under the headings ‘Lies of the Month’ or ‘Lies of the Week’, small extracts from British and Irish papers were printed and then subsequently discredited. An excellent example can be found in the issue of 5 September:

The Irish Independent is still at it. Some time ago it published a photo to show ‘Communists’ firing at a statue of the sacred Heart. The Murphy rag was hurt when its readers openly declared the photo to be fake. So to ‘prove’ the truth of the first fake it printed another- an old picture believed to date from the Barcelona rioting in 1909.

The Irish Independent was the focus for a great deal of the radical left’s energy: fervently pro-Franco and anti-communist, the paper had an extensive history of reactionary reporting. The Worker wasted no time reminding its readers of the capitalist and anti-republican stance of this paper:

The 'Independent' and the Great War:
This same newspaper sent tens of thousands of Irishmen to their death in the last big war fighting for British imperialism. What was its war cry then? 'Save Catholic Belgium'. What is its war cry now? 'Save Catholic Spain.'

The radical left also perceived a more sinister, domestic dimension to press propaganda in Ireland. Only a year had passed since O’Duffy’s Blueshirts had disappeared, and once again he was back in the political arena. As well as O’Duffy, Patrick Belton’s Christian Front seemed to be developing into a political force. On 22 November, the front held a large rally in Galway. As well as the usual pro-Franco resolutions, a motion pledged the Irish Christian Front to bring about an economic system based on the papal encyclicals.[11][12] John Swift’s Bakers’ Union also pledged support to the Spanish government, Swift himself being one of the leading members of the Spanish Aid Committee. Generally though, the Worker could only report A Shameful Contrast! Where the silence of Free State Labour compared to other countries:

At the same time thousands of pounds are being collected by British Trade Unionists, French Trade Unionists are demanding and end to the ‘neutrality’ pact which Hitler and Mussolini are laughing at; Belgian, Czech, Dutch and American workers demonstrate in thousand in support of Spanish democracy. And Ulster Labour leaders and rank and file alike, support the sending of a Red Cross unit to the Republican forces in Spain. (12 September 1936)

It is clear that the Worker, in its coverage of the Spanish Civil War, was prepared to accept and utilise Comintern strategy where appropriate, but primarily it was influenced by the domestic political situation. This certainly corresponds with Bowler’s argument that the CPI adapted to the particular pressures of the Irish context and although generally following the Comintern line, pragmatism and a certain political dexterity allowed for a more flexible approach[13] The paper operated within an atmosphere of fervent anti-communism and continually reflected this position. The domination of religion and the continual necessity to refute reactionary propaganda dictated the bulk of the Worker’s analysis of the early months of the Spanish Civil War. The weekly bulletin reached only a limited audience and would have little effect on the majority of workers. However, it still remained in 1936, the only pro-Spanish Republican paper in the free State The representation of the opening phase of any conflict can be crucial in the battle for public opinion. Without the Worker, there would have been no mass medium through which the radical left cold have attempted to counter the dominance of pro-Franco propaganda. Its size and limited circulation, therefore, cannot detract from its importance.

The Worker ceased publication when the financially constrained CPI combined forces with the Republican Congress and the Socialist Party (Northern Ireland) to produce the Irish Democrat, a larger, eight page weekly which sought to ‘explain the political issues in Spain as well as in Ireland and Europe where fascism was going from strength to strength.’[14] Its coverage was rather more sophisticated than that of the Worker. However, it was that very lack of sophistication in the Worker’s coverage that starkly revealed the significant issues at stake for the radical left in both Spain and Ireland during this extremely important time.

[1] The title comes from Peadar O’Donnells book, Salud!, p239

[2] The reaction in Ireland to the SCW is dealt with by J Bowyer Bell, Ireland and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, Studia Hibernica, Vol. 9 (1969)

[3] Biographical details of Murray are in Stephen Bowler, ‘Sean Murray, 1898-1961, and the pursuit of Stalinism in one country’, Saothar, Vol 18 (1993) Saothar is the journal of the Irish Labour History Society.

[4] Milotte, Communism in Modern Ireland, pp171-72.

[5] Milotte, pp171-2; Worker, 13th March 1937.

[6] O’Donnell, Salud!, p255

[7] Irish Workers’ Voice, 7 December 1935

[8] Margaret Ward, interview with Nora Harkin, Dublin, October 1992

[9] Ward interview.

[10] Milotte, p172

[11] Bell, Ireland and the Spanish Civil War, p151.

[12] Milotte, p170.

[13] Bowler, Séan Murray, pp42-44

[14] O’Riordan, Connolly Column, p96

To read the relevant articles from the Worker go here. This site also contains the contents of the Irish Democrat - 1937 and then The Workers' Republic, another CPI paper from 1938.