The Hidden Story of the Revolution

Land and Freedom reviewed by Andy Durgan

The Civil War in Spain: Revolution and Counterrevolution

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 1 (new series), whole no. 21, Summer 1996]

Andy Durgan, who lives in Barcelona, was the historical advisor for Ken Loach's Land and Freedom.

KEN LOACH'S Tierra y Libertad (Land and Freedom) continues, not only to attract enthusiastic audiences, but to be heaped with praise. Not many people have criticized the film publicly, but there is an undercurrent of disagreement which comes out privately. This is not surprising. A whole generation looked, or continue to look, toward the official Communist movement in its various guises -- Euro-Communists, pro-Soviets, varieties of Maoism -- albeit very "post" if not "ex"; all sharing a version of what happened in the Civil War. The objections that are made about Loach's film are that it is "historically inaccurate," "partial" and "irrelevant" to today's world. Let us, then, consider these objections.

The historian, Josep Maria SolÚ i SabatÚ, Director of the museum of Catalan History and former leading member of Iniciativa per Catalunya, an electoral alliance backed by the Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC), has denounced Land and Freedom as "a film that does not stand up historically" although "as a work of fiction if is alright." (El Temps, 4/24/95)

Inevitably, given that it is a film and thus a dramatization, there are "errors" from an historical point of view. However, none of them alter the basic accuracy of the events portrayed.

What then is the relationship between the film and historical fact?

David Carr decides to go to Spain after attending a solidarity meeting organized in late August 1936 by the Liverpool Communist Party of which he is a member. Prior to October, the Communist movement did not organize volunteers for the fight in Spain, and those individual foreign Communists who did fight, did so on their own initiative and not always in Party-led units. Thus in the summer of 1936, the young English poet and Communist, John Cornford, found himself fighting in the POUM militia on the Aragon front. Another young British Communist, Staff Cottman, also fought with the POUM after his own Party refused to send him. His experiences led him to break with the Party and join the Independent Labour Party -- the POUM's sister organization in Britain at the time.

David arrives in Catalonia in October 1936 and receives rudimentary training from weary, but loyal, army officers at the Lenin Barracks (Cuartel de Lepanto) in Barcelona -- as described so graphically by George Orwell in his Homage to Catalonia.

By the time David arrives at the front, the lines have stabilized. The majority of the POUM militia, the Lenin Column, was stationed on the front around Huesca where it had up to 6,000 fighters. With them were another 15,000 or so militia, principally from the CNT but also the PSUC. The Lenin Column was organized into centurias (later battalions), which were subdivided into companies of 10 to 20. It included in its ranks some 200 foreign volunteers, including 30 Britons. David's company is made up of mainly foreigners and some Spaniards and is part of a centuria commanded by Vidal. The fact that it is "English speaking" is fictitous, but obviously necessary for an English speaking director who uses improvization as a central part of his films. There were also some women in the POUM militia; most did not fight, but a few did.

Due to the lack of suitable arms the Huesca front stagnated after early October 1936 and there was no further major activity until the offensive of June 1937. The main danger for the militiamen was the boredom, the cold, themselves (many casualties were accidents) and the occasional shell, as is described not only by Orwell but by other participants in their memoirs. The lines were often close enough for the two sides to shout at each other. The only strictly military activities were occasional raids and expeditions into no-mans land.

In the film, we see David taking part in an attack on a village in early spring 1937. This is the only major "distortion" of historical reality that occurs in the film. The POUM and other militia had seized a number of villages and strategic points around Huesca between late July and the end of September 1936 (Vidal, the battalion commander, shouts out a list in the later scene when his unit is disbanded). Such was the limited nature of both the defenders' and attackers' resources, that these assaults often took place at dawn and involved little more than rifles, rudimentary hand grenades and the occasional heavy machine-gun and mortar.

Loach permits himself this "distortion" for various obvious reasons -- to change the rhythm of the film and, above all, to introduce the central debate about whether to collectivize the land or not, within which the relationship between the war and the revolution is posed. The altered chronology does not seriously undermine the film's credibility at an historical level.

In April 1937, the Lenin Column was finally integrated into the Popular Army, becoming the 29th Division. This decision was accepted with disquiet by the POUM, which had argued instead for the creation of a "Red Army" under the control of a Workers' and Peasants' Government based on workers,' peasants' and fighters' committees. In the film we see this situation debated by David's company which votes to support the Column's Estado Mayor in its attempt to preserve the revolutionary character of its units. Rather than represent a completely accurate picture of what happened, this scene serves to illustrate both the criticisms the POUM had of the new army and the democratic nature of the militia. Inside the Lenin Column, as with other militia, political discussion was a regular feature of life.

David is sent to hospital in Barcelona after a rifle explodes in his hands -- a frequent enough occurrence given the antiquated arms used on the Aragon front. There he meets other foreign Communists and is both informed about their view of the political situation and persuaded that he should be in the International Brigades with his fellow Party members. He then takes part in the street fighting during the Hechos de mayo, defending a PSUC headquarters. Disgusted with what he sees, David returns to the militia at the Aragon front and then takes part in the POUM forces' last attack.

ON THE JUNE 12, AN OFFENSIVE WAS FINALLY LAUNCHED on the Huesca front. In order to carry this out, well-armed Communist units were brought from the Central front, much to the resentment of the ill-equipped troops that had defended the lines since the previous October. On the June 16 (the very day the POUM was declared illegal by the Republican government and Andreu Nin arrested in Barcelona) two battalions of the 129th brigade of the 29th Division (former Lenin Column) were ordered to launch a diversionary attack on the fascist position on the Loma de los MÓrtires just outside Huesca. To their rear was stationed a unit of Assault Guards, supposedly in reserve but widely believed to be there to watch over the "suspect" POUM troops.

The only attack that succeeded that day was the one on the Loma de los MÓrtires, taken by the POUM units without the promised artillery support. They were joined in the seized fascist trenches by the rest of the 129th Brigade and a section of the 128th Brigade. Given that all other attacks around Huesca had failed, the fascists could concentrate on the captured position and the POUM fighters soon had to resist the attacks of Moroccan Regulares as well as concentrated tank, machine-gun and artillery fire. Despite repeated calls for artillery and air support, it was not forthcoming. After two days, the 129th Brigade was given the order to withdraw. POUM sources speak of 300 casualties. The battle scene in the film is based on these events.

During the following days, the 29th Division was disbanded and its officers arrested. During this process, the Division's crack Batall˛ de Xoc Rovira was nearly involved in an armed clash with troops from the PSUC-led 27th Division sent to take over the 29th's Parc Mobil at Belillas. In the film, these dramatic events are represented through the arrival of Popular Army Troops to disband David's and other units commanded by Vidal.

David takes Blanca's body to her village, an unlikely occurrence but not impossible if this is not too far behind the frontline. Loach uses this scene to mention the breakup of the collectives in Aragon -- the last stronghold of the revolution -- in August 1937 by troops under the command of the Communist Enrique Lister. David then has to escape from Spain as his name is on a wanted list, as did Orwell, Cottman and other foreign volunteers who had fought with the POUM. Others were not so lucky, especially the Germans and Italians (obviously "fascists" for their Stalinist persecutors), many of whom were imprisoned or murdered.

As SolÚ i Sabate said, " a work of fiction it is alright."

Partial History or Which Part of History

SOME PEOPLE WOULD NO DOUBT AGREE WITH THE CRITICISM that Loach's film is "partial" or "simplistic" and that it does not show how "complicated" the Civil War was. This is true of course. Land and Freedom is not a documentary nor does it pretend to be a film "about the Civil War." It is, as the opening credits state, "a story of the Spanish Revolution." And it is "partial." Ken Loach does not apologize for this. It is partial for the revolution and against counterrevolution and fascism. Yes, he takes sides.

Santiago Carrillo (El Pais 4/6/95) dismisses the film as presenting the struggle of the Spanish people as "distorted and reduced to an ultra leftist view of events." According to SolÚ i SabatÚ "it is the best favor one could do for the Francoist regime: giving the impression of an internal war inside the Republican side." The solution, one must assume, is that Loach should have presented the "other side" of the argument.

So, let's look at the "other" side of the argument. The Communists argued that the only way to win the war was to construct a centralized and orthodox army and to win support from the western democracies. In order to do this, the revolution had to be eliminated. Unhappy with the "excesses" involved, many latter-day apologists of the Stalinist line defend the need to curb the revolution but criticize the "errors" committed in doing so.

The problem is that "doing away" with revolutions inevitably means repression. Moreover, the Popular Front strategy -- changing the left's program to adapt middle class opinion home and abroad -- was not developed by chance but imposed by Moscow throughout the world regardless of local circumstances. In Spain it "fitted" in the sense that there was a need for unity against the fascist threat. It was grafted onto the resuscitated Republican-Socialist electoral coalition.

Certain observations need to be made. Neither the Republican parties nor the moderate wing of Spanish Socialism (Prieto) wanted a revolution before, during or after the war. The Spanish Communists on the other hand, like all their counterparts internationally, had only two years previously denounced the Socialists as the main enemy of the working masses, as "social fascists." By late 1934, the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) had begun to talk of the need for a "Bloque Popular Anti-fascista" involving all anti-fascists. An illustration of how little serious analyisis there was behind what would soon be the Communists' insistence on the need to placate the middle classes was the PCE's Catalan section's claim in April 1935 that, "molta part de la petita burguesia laboriosa ..havien perdut llurs illusions en els partits republicans burgesos i que actualment dirigien la mirada cap al comunisme.." ["a good part of the working petit bourgeoise ...having lost its illusions about the leadership of the bourgeois republican parties is looking to Communism."]

Were these middle classes, represented for the Communist Party by left Republicanism, so influential that they had to be won over at any cost, even the destruction of the revolution of July 1936? Hardly. In the elections of November 1933, there had been no alliance between Republicans and the Socialists. The left lost, but the result for the left Republicans was particularly disastrous: outside of Catalonia, only one of their candidates was elected without the help of parties to their left or right.

The POUM, in contrast, did not argue that the petit bourgeoisie should be ignored, but that the revolution had to address itself to their problems. For this reason, Nin's party opposed enforced collectivization. But it did insist on the workers' movement keeping its ideological independence.

The PCE's argument that the Western democracies had to be wooed is also deficient. The latter had little doubt as to where their interests lay and only their need not to be seen to be publicly condoning the overthrow of democracy prevented them from recognizing Franco before 1939. Instead, the Republic had to suffer the indignities of "non-intervention," while German warplanes and Italian troops smashed its army and its civilian supporters. Even Soviet historians recognize that "from the end of 1937," that is after the revolution had clearly been defeated, "connivance (against the Spanish Republic) between the Fascist states and the USA, France and Britain was increasingly obvious" (cited in F. Claudin, The Communist Movement, Harmondsworth 1975, p.235).

The Popular Front -- either the Socialist-Republican or Communist version -- was not the only strategy available to win the war but was the only one available to undermine the revolution in the name of "anti-fascist unity."

An orthodox war against Franco could not be won, even less so without sufficient military aid, and with the very partial "advice" given by Soviet military advisors. But the Republic had one very important factor in its favor -- the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses which had resisted the military uprising and within days had gone far beyond the confines of Republican democracy. By pushing the war back into these confines, the Stalinists and their allies destroyed the very enthusiasm that could have defeated Franco. As they did by bowing to military advice that did not, in fact, put the needs of the war first but rather the needs of Soviet foreign policy. Events of the Aragon front and in Barcelona in May 1937 clearly demonstrate this.

Which brings us back to Land and Freedom. It may be true that Loach shows only a small part of the war, but it is this part, symbolized in the suppression of the POUM, which explains exactly who was responsible for dividing the anti-fascist struggle and why the Republic lost. Loach could have shown the undoubted heroism of thousands of Communists and others, apart from the POUM, in fighting fascism, but his failure to do so does not remove the central problem posed by the Republic's defeat. Neither does bemoaning the fact that everyone committed "errors" (the anarchists killed people too). The problem is that some committed errors and others carried out a counterrevolution whose historical consequences we are still paying for -- the victory of Franco and the strenthening of Stalinism.

Out of Date or Out of Sight ?

WITH THE RE-EMERGENCE OF FASCISM, MASS UNEMPLOYMENT AND WAR in Europe, Tierra y Libertad is a timely reminder of when hundreds of thousands of men and women fought for a better world. That it was working-class internationalism, not liberal democracy, that backed the beleaguered Republic.

The collapse of the Communist states, does not make a film which denounces Stalinism irrelevant but makes it more necessary than ever. The Spanish revolution shows there was and is a revolutionary alternative to the authoritarian one-party police states that have masqueraded as "socialism," much to the right's delight, for so long.

Today, when those who "know better" never tire of telling us that all is lost, nothing can be changed and nothing can be done, rather than forget about the past we have every reason to remember it. Revolutions mark the highest points in human history, when ordinary people, for once, really take control of their own destinies. In Spain, and elsewhere, the experience of the revolution of 1936, has deliberately been hidden, forgotten, it has even not been talked about in the name of some abstract "left unity." No, we must remember. We must learn.

At the end of the film we see not just the dead being buried. David's grandaughter is the link between the past and the present. By mixing the Tierra from 1936 with today's, Loach is saying the fight against fascism and the fight to end the system that breeds it, the fight for Libertad, goes on.

Some articles on the Loach film, Land and Freedom.
One likely to have been supportive of AlexanderMick O'Riordan and Peter O'Connor denounce the film on 30.1.96
International Brigader Bill Alexander Condemns the films politics.
3 supporting the politics of the film Betrayed from within. Veterans of the Spanish Civil War have been inspired to speak publicly about the true story of their struggle by the success in Spain of Ken Loach's new film, 'Land and Freedom' Written by Jonathan Steele in the Guardian, September 29, 1995
Wilebaldo Solano, the former General Secretary of the POUMHe replies to the Spanish Stalinist leader Santiago Carrillo. Translated by Ian Birchill from El Pais, (14-15 April 1995)