The Spanish Civil War

Extract from Mike Milotte thesis, Communist Politics in Ireland, 1916-45, Queens University Belfast, 1977, pp378-390.

[Note: This thesis was researched and finished before the publication of Mick O’Riordan’s book, in 1979, something to bear in mind. I don’t have access to his footnotes and sources at the moment, but thought I should add this as it is, and add the notes later. Some points do need clarifying, like the withdrawal of NISP support for the Irish Democrat, CC, 12/3/7]

It was events in far off Spain which gave renewed impetus to the Irish Left, as they did to the remnants of the Irish fascist movement. The Spanish Civil War, which began in July 1936 as General Franco attempted a coup d’etat against the newly elected Popular Front Government, was the first real test of the Comintern’s new strategy in a potentially revolutionary situation. The Popular Front Government had been returned in February 1936 on a programme of land distribution and promising to release thousands of political prisoners. The Spanish Communist Party, although not participating in the government, gave its unconditional support. The Irish Times described the regime as ‘a legally elected government which is almost as bourgeois (capitalist) as the government of the Irish Free State. That was undoubtedly true, but before the government could act on its promises, the workers and peasants, freed from the yoke of three years’ harsh repression, took matters into their own hands, storming the prisons, seizing the land and engaging in mass strikes for higher pay. It was in an attempt to stem this popular upheaval that Franco, backed by the officer corps, the landlords, and most industrialists, staged his coup.

The fascist revolt was met by an even greater show of working class militancy: barracks were seized, soldiers disarmed and workers’ militias established; factories were taken over and run collectively; the peasant farmers stepped up their land seizures. While the government prevaricated, effective power lay in the hands of the workers’ organisations. Their revolt was, however, un-coordinated and initiated largely by anarchists who had no perspective for seizing state power. But it expressed forcefully the workers’ instinctive desire to halt Franco’s advance by making a social revolution which would destroy the capitalist system – the system which had produced fascism and which Franco was fighting to preserve. To the uniformed, it looked like the communists’ life long dream had been realised; but, in fact, the workers’ revolt was a nightmare to the communist leadership. It threatened to disrupt their carefully nurtured all-class alliances – the Popular Front. The Spanish Communist Party, and its sister parties throughout the world, were quick to reassure the middle classes that they stood solidly for the restoration of the State and the social system. Where previously the Comintern had argued that fascism could only be defeated when the influence of social democracy over the masses was destroyed, it now maintained that the answer to fascism lay in the defence of bourgeois democracy. The struggle for socialism could not begin until the existing democratic system was secured, and it could only be secured in an alliance of the workers with the bourgeois democrats. As a consequence, the Spanish communists found themselves in conflict not only with the advancing fascist armies, but with the revolutionary workers as well. A civil war within the civil war began, as communist forces, in league with the government, and backed by hundreds of Stalin’s secret police, moved onto the offensive against those who threatened the all-class alliance. Thousands of workers were murdered; their revolution was dismantled, and power was passed back to the bourgeoisie.

The communist policy was dictated by Stalin’s search for alliances with Britain and France – a policy which ruled out the establishment of a revolutionary workers’ government south of the Pyrenees. It failed on both scores, however. Firstly, under middle class leadership, the anti-fascist struggle in Spain remained purely military with no social revolutionary content, and Franco, better armed and equipped, had the upper hand from the start, and eventually won a military victory. Secondly, Stalin’s efforts to convince the West of his dedication to democracy failed to produce the alliances he sought.

The Spanish Civil War stirred up passions in Ireland which have remained alive to this day. It was inevitable that the issues at stake in Spain should have become clouded in a fog of religious hysteria. Spain was an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and Franco claimed to be fighting for God and the Church against the hordes of communism and the anti-Christ. It was the type of war envisaged by many an Irish Bishop’s pastoral. The Irish Right was organised by Paddy Belton, Fine Gael TD, who launched the Irish Christian Front to campaign for support for Franco. With the blessing of the Hierarchy, and the approval of Fine Gael and the Irish Independent, the Front conducted a massive anti-communist campaign throughout the country. The Communist Party of Ireland persistently claimed that the Front was financed by Vickers, the British armaments form. (Vickers had considerable interests in Spain.) In August 1936, Count Ramirez de Arellana, a prominent Spanish fascist, wrote to Cardinal MacRory calling for Irish support in the ‘anti-communist’ struggle. The Cardinal put him in touch with Eoin O’Duffy, and by the end of the year O’Duffy was leading a 700 strong Irish Brigade in aid of Franco. Their involvement was exceedingly inglorious, and by early 1937 his men were in mutinous mood and voted overwhelmingly to return home. The men’s morale had clearly not been uplifted by the bizarre importation of the St Mary’s Anti-Communist Pipe Band which accompanied their marching with Irish tunes.

Belton’s Christian Front organised massive Nuremberg like anti-communist rallies in Dublin, Cork, Galway and other towns and villages throughout the country. The largest was at College Green in Dublin, attended by an estimated 120,000 people. The Front collected £30,000 to finance its campaign. Cardinal MacRory also launched a fund for fighting communism which netted £40,000 at church gate collections in October 1936. The anti-communist campaign was constantly fuelled by reports of atrocities directed against the Catholic Church in Spain. The press, lay and clerical, reported every incident, real and imaginary, in all their gory details. The Vatican had thrown its full weight behind Franco, and in a civil war situation, it was inevitable that a Church which was so openly partisan should come under attack. Undoubtedly, there were excesses, but the whole truth was not told: the Spanish Communist Party favoured the re-opening of the Churches in Republican held territory.

Under such massive right-wing and clerical pressure, the Irish Left divided. Throughout the civil war the Irish Labour Party maintained a stony silence, refusing to support the Spanish Government, while endorsing de Valera’s policy of official neutrality. Even James Larkin Senior opposed any firm commitment against Franco. The Executive Committee of the Workers’ Union of Ireland, with Larkin’s approval, passed a resolution preventing all officials of the union from speaking on anti-Franco platforms. Jack Carney, who had spoken publicly in support of the Spanish Government, split from Larkin after more than 20 years of political and personal association, resigned his union positions, and left in disgust for England. Elsewhere in the country trade union branches passed resolutions condemning their leaders’ supposed support for the Spanish Republic. Branches of the ATGWU in Galway and Tyrone dissolved in protest at their executive’s decision to grant £1,000 to the Government in humanitarian aid. In Newry, a Catholic priest urged the local branch of the union to follow their example. The Irish executive of the ATGWU, however, gave its backing to the British leaders’ decision. Some country branches of the Labour Party passed resolutions in support of Franco, and Michael Keyes TD, a future leader of the Labour Party, spoke from Christian Front platforms.

The mounting hysteria had its effect on the Labour Party leadership. At the party’s annual conference in 1937, William Norton launched a vigorous attack on communism, and on February 23, he wrote to Cardinal Pacelli, Papal Secretary of State at the Vatican – and later Pope Pius X11 – to explain the party’s position on communism. He quoted the anti-communist resolution which had been passed at the 1934 conference and stated: “That resolution has continued to govern the attitude towards communist philosophy in the interval. We have no contacts with the adherents of that philosophy and we have made no secret of our determination that they shall have no contact with us.” Such sentiments made a nonsense of the Communist Party’s undeviating pursuit of the Popular Front.

With sections of the official labour movement expressing sympathy for Franco, the Communist Party, and all those who explicitly defended the Spanish Government, had a mammoth task in counteracting the propaganda and activities of the Right. The Republican Congress movement was revamped for the duration of the civil war to help rally the Irish opposition to Franco. In the North, the Labour Party had taken a firm stand in defence of the Spanish Republic. The Socialist Party in Belfast took a stand closer to that of the British Independent Labour Party which was supporting the POUM – the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, a heterogeneous organisation mistakenly described as Trotskyist – which was pursuing a more revolutionary course than the Spanish Communist Party. There was strong rivalry in Belfast between the CP and the NISP on this issue. An all-Ireland Spanish Aid Committee was formed under the direction of Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, Dorothy Macardle and Nora Connolly-O’Brien. But none of these anti-Franco bodies achieved anything like the momentum of the Christian Front, and they had to operate in a near pogrom atmosphere. The Communist Party was the only organisation on the Left publishing a paper in which the Republic was defended, but it was the small duplicated Worker, whose circulation remained small and whose influence was minimal.

In September 1936, Stalin agreed to sell arms to the Spanish Government to counter the massive military support given to Franco by Hitler and Mussolini. Simultaneously, the decision was taken to form an International Brigade, comprised of anti-fascist volunteers. Prior to this the Comintern and its sections had argued against intervention, and Stalin had signed a pact to that effect with the British, French, Irish and other Governments. The first Irish volunteers to go to Spain were not organised by the communists, but by the NI Socialist Party in Belfast. In September, however, Bill Gannon, a member of the CPI who had experience in the IRA, was put in charge of recruitment in Ireland. Many members of the Communist Party enrolled, among them Michael O’Riordan (the future general secretary of the party); Johnny Power from Waterford, whose two brothers also fought; Jim Prendergast, a future executive member of the National Union of Railwaymen; Kit Conway, a hero of the Irish civil war; Liam McGregor, a graduate of the Lenin College in Moscow who acted as a political commissar; Liam Tumilson, a former Orangeman who had led the James Connolly Clubs in Belfast in 1934, and several more. Donal O’Reilly, who had left the CPI before the Spanish Civil War began, asked for, and was given, a party card before he, too, went to fight. By December 24, the Irishmen, organised in the James Connolly Battalion, under Frank Ryan’s command, were fighting on the Spanish front. By the end of the year, eleven of them had been killed in action, and in March 1937, the Connolly unit was disbanded because of heavy causalities, and its members were divided between the British and American Battalions of the 15th International Brigade. Irish volunteers fought in most of he major battles in the following 18 months, suffering exceedingly heavy casualties.

In Ireland, the Communist Party and its allies conducted their anti-Franco campaign in an atmosphere which was massively and violently hostile. The party undertook as its primary task, to tell ‘the truth’ of the Spanish situation and expose the lies of Church and Press. It set out to show that the Spanish Government was not communist, that the struggle was not one for workers’ power, and that the Catholic Church was not the victim of anti-Christian forces. The Worker frequently reproduced editorials from the Irish Times, the only paper which was openly favourable to the Spanish Government and which was at pains to explain its thoroughly bourgeois character. The CPI went to great lengths to argue that communism was not an enemy of the Catholic Church, and at times it suggested that it was more Christian than its traducers. A Basque priest was brought over to speak on behalf of the Republican cause; capitalism was described as Godless and anti-Christian, and when the Irish Hierarchy again attacked communism in their Lenten pastorals of February 1937, the CP described their attack as a ‘flat defiance of the Ninth Commandment.’ (The author of the retort clearly had in mind the Protestant version of the Commandments, of which the Ninth is, ‘Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbour’, implying that the Hierarchy was telling lies about communism. In the Catholic version, the Ninth Commandment is, ‘Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s wife’. It is unlikely that the CPI was accusing the Hierarchy of defying this one!) This accommodation of Christianity was not a peculiarly Irish tactic to be justified on the grounds that the religious inspired backlash was most severe in Ireland. The CPGB carried on a similar campaign in Britain where the clerical reaction was minimal. The projected alignment of Christians and communists was a universal characteristic of the popular front strategy.

The Pope, for one, was not convinced. In the Encyclical Divini Redemptoris (1937), Pope Pius X1 declared: “In the beginning Communism showed itself for what it was in all its perversity; but very soon it realised that it was thus alienating the people. It has therefore changed its tactics, and strives to entice the multitudes by trickery of various forms hiding its real designs behind ideals that in themselves are good and attractive…Without receding an inch from their subversive principles, they invite Catholics to collaborate with them in the realm of so-called humanitarianism and charity” The Papal Encyclical was produced in Ireland by the Catholic Truth Society under the title, Communism, the Enemy of God, and was sold at the door of every Catholic Church in the country.

In Belfast, Harry Midgley had written a pamphlet, Spain – the Press, the Pulpit and the Truth, which was a defence of ‘representative government and democratic institutions’, aimed mainly against the Nationalist Party and the Irish News, both of which were pro-Franco. Midgley’s opposition to fascism was indistinguishable from his opposition to communism, both of which he regarded as anti-democratic and totalitarian, but rather than distinguish itself from him, the CPI lauded his pamphlet as ‘brilliant’, undertook its distribution in the South, and urged all workers to read and absorb its arguments, Midgley himself was hailed as ‘a worthy son of the great democrats of Ulster…and the victims of October 1932.’ (At the time of the 1932 events, the communists had held Midgley all but personally responsible for the death of the two workers killed in the struggle against unemployment.) By February 1937, the Worker was declaring that there was really no difference at all between the Communist and the Labour Party, that both stood for ‘a new social order’ to be achieved by ‘democratic methods and constitutional government’.

Similar assurances had been given in the South when, in November 1936, Paddy McGovern, Fine Gael TD, asked the Minister for Justice of there was a communist organisation in Ireland ‘which has as one its known objects the overthrow of the Government by force of arms.’ Indignantly, the party replied; “The Communist Party of Ireland does not have as its object the overthrown of the democratically elected Government. Everywhere in the world today Communists are defending democratic Government.”

The result of this manoeuvring was that communist policy became virtually indistinguishable from liberal Christianity, reformist labour and the editorials of the Irish Times. The CPI had become so indistinct as a separate and independent organisation that in March 1937, it decided to abandon its own weekly paper and join the Republican Congress and NI Socialist Party in producing the Irish Democrat, a monthly, published by the amorphous ‘Progressive Publications Society’. The new paper was supposedly non-party and open to all ‘progressive opinion’, but on May 8, reporting the communist coup against anarchist and POUM workers in Barcelona, Frank Ryan denounced the POUM as ‘a Fascist force in the rear’, and called for the ‘crushing of this pest once and for all.’ The NISP objected strenuously and shortly afterwards withdrew its support for the paper.

By the end of December 1937, the Irish Democrat had collapsed and the CP was again without an outlet for its views. The paper had failed to interest any section of the working class, North or South, and won only minimal support from ‘liberal’ sections of the middle class. Towards the end of the following year, the International Brigade was disbanded and the remaining Irish fighters returned home. In March 1939, the Spanish Civil War ended when Madrid and Valencia were surrendered to Franco. The Communist Party had lost several of its best members in Spain, among them Kit Conway, Jack Nalty, Frank Conroy and Liam McGregor from Dublin, and Ben Murray, Liam Tumilson and Dick O’Neill from Belfast. Murray had been a frequent speaker at the Customs House steps and sold the communist papers on the Shankill Road. He had been forced to emigrate after the pogroms of 1935. The death of MacGregor, the son of the Dublin tenants’ leader, Esther MacGregor, was a particularly severe blow as he was in line for a position in the leadership of the party when he returned. Along with Liam Tumilson died several of the Belfast Protestants who had come over to socialist and republican politics in the days of the Republican Congress.

It seems reasonable to suggest that at least some of the communists who went to fight in Spain did so in the belief that socialism, and not the restoration of the bourgeois republic, was their goal. Joe Monks, a Dublin CP member who was wounded in December 1936, explained his reasons: “Those of us who had gone through the thirties, unemployment and so forth, and knew of the want that came in the wake of the great slump in 1929, were very enthusiastic at seeing the working class as the ruling class inside a Western European state.” But the Spanish Communist Party had very different ideas. In August 1936, L’Humanite, the French communist paper, reported, “The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Spain request us to inform the public…that the Spanish people are not fighting for the dictatorship of the proletariat, but know only one aim: the defence of the republican order, while respecting property.” The role of the communists in Spain in 1936-38 was similar in many ways to that of the republicans in Ireland in the era of the war of independence and civil war; they acted as a break on the social revolution, and, consequently, ensured that the cause for which they were fighting eventually failed.

The Communist Party of Ireland’s stand on Spain brought only a slight improvement in recruitment at home, mostly in Belfast – but not enough to make up for the losses it suffered. One recruit, who was to prove of great value in the war years, was Malachy Gray. Unlike in Britain, where membership of the CPGB more than doubled in the period from 1936 to 1939, the Irish party declined in strength, particularly in the South. One reason for this difference was the prevalence of Catholic ideology which, in the Spanish events, had fought an invigorating cause to champion. There was no comparable reaction in Britain where, more often than not, the CPGB was outflanked on the left rather than the right. Secondly, it was the recruitment, on an unprecedented scale, of radical intellectuals, a class of persons sorely lacking in Ireland, which had helped swell the ranks of the CPGB in those years. The CPI did recruit a few intellectuals, most notably, Robin Tweedy, an engineer and fuel expert who had drafted plans for turf production for the Second Dail, and who could claim credit for the subsequent emergence of Bord Na Mona. Others were won in Belfast, but even there, they remained few in numbers, and weak in overall influence on external events. Nor, with the emphasis on all class alliances in pursuit of liberal goals, did the CPI make any noticeable impact on the workers’ struggles of this period.

Notes, added by CC:

The Irish Democrat article on the Barcelona events and the POUM is not signed and I'm not sure where Milotte's source saying it was by F Ryan comes from. It reads:

Irish Democrat 8th May 1937

Trotskyites Sabotage in Barcelona

The 'Barcelona Mutiny' is being exploited by the pro-Fascist press here. But friends of Fascism who hope for a civil war in Catalonia will be disappointed. The facts of the position are these:

The CNT, Anarchist trade Unions, and the UGT, Labour Trade Unions, are in co-operation with the Catalan Generality (Government). There is no Anarchist revolt against the government. The trouble originated from the numerically insignificant POUM, a Trotskyite body which has carried on a campaign of wrecking and disorganising against the war. The POUM has fought bitterly against the United Front, and endeavoured to prevent unity between Anarchists, Socialists, Republicans and Communists. Its press called for the overthrow of 'the bourgeois Republican Government.' The crisis arose when the POUM opposed a unified military control and the sending of arms to the front.

In effect, the POUM was a Fascist force in the rear.

The Catalan Government will have the support of the masses of Spanish Labour, of all organisations, in crushing this pest once and for all, and thus enabling the whole energies of the people to be directed to the vital objective of winning the war.