Lewis H Mates, The Spanish Civil War and the British Left: Political Activism and the Popular Front (Tauris Academic Studies, 2007), £52.50
Few international events have had such an impact on British domestic politics as the Spanish Civil War. Despite the rich and powerful favouring Franco and the National Government backing non_intervention, by the end of the war, according to opinion polls, 71 percent of the population supported the beleaguered Republic.
What became known as the Aid for Spain Movement was based on hundreds of local committees and labour movement organisations. It not only raised thousands of pounds for the Republican cause, but sent over 200 medical personnel, 29 food ships and in May 1937 organised the reception in Britain of 4,000 Basque refugee children. Parallel to this was the recruitment of some 2,300 volunteers for the International Brigades.
Lewis Mates’s study of the response to the Spanish Civil War by the labour movement in the north east of England sheds new light on two central facets of this solidarity: the exact nature and extent of “official” labour aid and the impact of the Communist Party’s popular front policy.
The Labour Party and TUC leaders were loathe to organise effective solidarity with the Republic. The defeat of the 1926 General Strike and the Trades Disputes Act of 1927, along with the large majority in parliament for the National Government, were cited to justify this reticence. The supposed hostility of working class Catholics to the Republic was also used as an excuse for caution. However, fear of losing control of any mass movement was the real reason for such inaction.
Instead the official leadership supported the farce of non-intervention, arguing that, if effectively applied, this was the best way to avoid the war spreading. Meanwhile they sent humanitarian aid, but without ever raising the quantities collected by the “unofficial” campaign.
In October 1937, long after it became obvious that non-intervention was only a cover for abandoning the Republic, the Labour and TUC leaders reversed their previous policy. Rank and file pressure had played an important part in this change of heart. However, the leadership still baulked at taking any measures that could have forced the government to support the loyalist side in Spain, in particular industrial action.
Mates shows that, despite the conservatism of labour leaders, the party and union rank and file were far more active than has been assumed in supporting the Republic. While left wingers were prominent in both raising funds and opposing the leadership’s initial support for non-intervention, mainstream labour supporters were also active over Spain. He also demonstrates that, in the north east of England at least, working class Catholics were more likely to follow their class instincts and support the Republic.
The labour leaders’ caution opened the way for the Communist Party, already strengthened by its active involvement in anti-fascist mobilisations, to take the lead in raising support for Spain. The party trebled its membership in this period (from about 6,000 to 18,000), attracted into its orbit many prominent intellectuals and gained immense prestige due to the loss of some its most outstanding members fighting with the International Brigades. The creation of a British version of the popular front appeared a real possibility.
Yet, as Mates demonstrates, growth in Communist influence was more apparent than real. Many Labour Party members and trade unionists were active around Spain independently from Communist_inspired initiatives. Moreover, the popular front policy was opposed by most Labour activists who were hostile to forming any sort of alliance with the discredited Liberal Party—clearly the centrepiece to any British version of the popular front. Neither could they overlook that only recently the Communist Party had attacked Labour as “social-fascist”.
By arguing that fascism was somehow independent from capitalism the Communists politically disarmed the solidarity movement. The popular front orientation of many committees and their emphasis on apolitical humanitarian aid proved a hindrance to building a strong campaign against non-intervention. Also attempts to collect funds in middle class areas, for instance, were largely a waste of time compared with the massive support offered in working class districts and workplaces.
Finally, the courting of a motley crew of vicars, Liberals and the occasional Tory not only put off many Labour supporters but also meant that the Communist Party could not defend the need for industrial action in support of the Republic, as this would have upset its would-be middle class allies. The signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in 1939 finished off any lingering hopes that the CP could have had of seeing their popular frontist illusions become reality.
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that rejection of the Communist popular front line meant that significant sections of the labour movement activists understood what was at stake in Spain. Like the Communist Party, most Labour and trade union activists accepted that what was happening was simply a struggle between “democracy and fascism”. References to the Spanish war being the result of a “foreign (fascist) invasion” or the absence of religious persecution in the Republican zone were two of the clearest examples of this distorted view. Unfortunately, only a small minority, most notably the Independent Labour Party, understood that only the deepening of the social revolution that had greeted the military uprising in July 1936 offered a strategy for victory.