Paul Preston, Perfidious Albion: Britain and the Spanish Civil War (Clapton Press 2024), 242pp. Paul Preston, Perfidious Albion: Britain and the Spanish Civil War (Clapton Press 2024), 242pp.

Chris Bambery recommends Preston’s Perfidious Albion, but disputes view that the kind of revolutionary war Orwell championed could not have defeated Franco and the fascists

Most people know that one reason why the fascists won the 1936-9 Spanish Civil War was because of the huge amount of direct aid their leader, General Francisco Franco, received from his brothers in arms, the fascist dictators, Hitler and Mussolini. Picasso’s masterpiece ‘Guernica’ immortalised the German destruction of the Basque town, home to their parliament. Mussolini sent some 100,000 troops which played a key role in fascist victories.

In his book of essays, Perfidious Albion, Paul Preston starts by looking at just how widespread support for Franco was in the British ruling class, and the role the British government played in directly assisting Franco’s victory. At the outset of the Civil War, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin set out his position thus: ‘We English hate fascism but we loathe Bolshevism as well. So, if this is a country where fascists and Bolsheviks can kill each other off, that is to the benefit of humanity’ (p.17).

In truth, that was not entirely true. That same month, July 1936, the Governor of Gibraltar warned his masters of the dire consequences if the ‘practically Communistic’ Popular Front government in Madrid defeated the military uprising, adding, ‘everyone anxiously awaits the result of General Franco’s coup’ (p.17).

When the Civil War began in Spain, the centre-left government of Leon Blum in France agreed to provide weapons and planes to the legitimate, elected government In Madrid, but the Tory government in Britain pressurised Blum to withdraw that aid. Instead, Britain and France decided on a policy of ‘non-interference’, whereby they, Germany, Italy and Portugal, a semi-fascist dictatorship, agreed not to supply arms or to intervene militarily in Spain. The dictatorships simply lied. German and Italian warships were tasked with patrolling Spain’s Mediterranean coast to stop arms coming in, doing nothing, of course, to stop vessels flying their flags bringing in weaponry and ‘volunteers’.

British and French warships did nothing when Italian submarines sunk ships heading to Barcelona and Valencia or when fascist warships bombarded columns of terrified refugees fleeing Malaga. With fascist forces cornering the main Basque city of Bilbao, the British accepted at face value fascist claims theyhad mined its entrance and that their warships would sink any vessels heading there that were inside Spanish territorial waters. The British government accepted this illegal threat. A Welsh captain proved Franco’s threats bunkum by bringing his ship, carrying desperately needed food, into Bilbao.

Dependence on Stalin

Non-intervention worked against the legal Government of the Spanish Republic, who could not buy arms from the Western democracies. They were forced to turn to Russia. Its dictator, Stalin, was hesitant because he wanted an alliance with Britain and France against Hitler, and did not want anything to upset that applecart. However, realising a fascist victory would damage Russia’s credibility, he agreed to send arms and advisers. These had to be paid for – Spain’s gold reserves sailed off to Russia – and were never on a scale to match what Hitler and Mussolini provided Franco.

The Republic’s dependence on Russia came with a political price. The right wing of the Spanish Socialist Party and the Communist Party agreed that the revolution which had broken out in response to the fascist coup of July 1936 (most importantly in Catalonia) had to be strangled. Eventually, in May 1937, a ‘Government of Victory’ was formed under the right-wing Socialist, Juan Negrin, with enthusiastic Communist support.

One of Preston’s close colleagues, Helen Graham (who like him I greatly admire), has written that the policy of Negrin was ‘to consolidate a liberal market-based economy and a parliamentary polity in Republican Spain.’i

Paul himself writes:

‘Socialists leaders like Indalecio Prieto [Minister of War 1937-1938] and Juan Negrin [Prime minister 1937 to 1939] saw that a conventional state, with central control of the economy and the institutional instruments of mass mobilisation, was the crucial basis of an efficacious war effort. The Communists and the Soviet advisors agreed. Not only was this common sense but the playing down of the revolutionary activities of the anarchists and the anti-Stalinist Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista [Poum] was necessary to reassure the bourgeois democracies with which the Soviet Union (and the Spanish Republican government) sought understanding’ (p.207).

What Negrin and the Communists wanted was a conventional army to fight a conventional war. The problem was that Franco had the advantage in terms of manpower and firepower. The Republican Army launched a series of well-conceived offensives which initially went well, but then Franco poured in men and artillery plus bombers and not just drove the Republicans back, but at Teruel split off Catalonia from the rest of Republican Spain, and then the Battle of the Ebro saw an eventual defeat which left Catalonia denuded of the military means to prevent its conquest.

Concern not to alienate the British and French meant the Republican government spurned the offers of Moroccan nationalists to raise a rebellion there, a major Nationalist base, if they were promised independence. Because most of Morocco was a French colony the answer was no.

The revolutionary alternative

In the country which invented guerrilla warfare when Napoleon occupied Spain, there was no serious attempt to launch such warfare in Nationalist controlled areas, because it was feared matters would get out of hand and upset bourgeois property relations. Because of that, there was no decree giving the land to the landless labourers in the great estates of southern Spain.

Preston paints a picture of how the popular militias formed in the summer of 1936 were ineffective, but, firstly, they defeated the military uprising in Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia, and secondly, the anarcho-syndicalist advance into Aragon saw the greatest gain of the war, in large part because it collectivised the land. The counterposing of war and revolution misses out the possibility of revolutionary war; as Cromwell showed in the English Civil War, and as did the Jacobins in the French Revolutionary Wars, Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti, Abraham Lincoln (eventually) in the American Civil War, and of course Leon Trotsky and the Red Army in the Russian Civil war which followed the Bolshevik Revolution.

Each of these centred on centralised armies but ones motivated by revolutionary goals, which meant they out fought the enemy. Of course Negrin and Stalin were having none of that. Preston knows these arguments but does not address them.

The main target of two of the six essays is the English writer, George Orwell, and his account of his military service with the Poum militia, Homage to Catalonia. For Preston, this offers a ‘worm’s eye’ view of what happened in Catalonia in May 1937 when Communist security forces provoked and then crushed an anarcho-syndicalist uprising in Barcelona. Worker’s control of the factories, the popular militias and the neighbourhood committee were then liquidated. This debacle became known as the ‘May days’.

I hesitate to cross swords with Preston whom I like and who is the best contemporary historian of modern Spain, but his accusation is that Orwell ignored why the Republic lost: because of German and Italian support. According to Presto, the Communist International’s Popular Front strategy of building anti-fascist alliances with liberals and so on, and dropping talk of revolution, in case it scared them, was the only possible option.

However, prior to going to Spain, Orwell was highly critical of the Comintern’s Popular Front strategy: ‘… which … will not be genuinely Socialist in character, but will simply be a manoeuvre against German and Italian (not English Fascism) consequently you have got to drive away the mealy-mouthed Liberal who wants foreign Fascism destroyed in order that he may go on drawing his dividends peacefully – the type of humbug who passes resolutions ‘against Fascism and Communism’, i.e. against rats and rat-poison.’

He went on to argue: ‘In the next few years we shall either get that effective Socialist party that we need, or we shall not get. it. If we do not get it, then Fascism is coming…’ii Instead of the Popular Front, Orwell looked to an antifascist workers’ front; the defeat of fascism through revolution and a new Socialist party. This view remained with him at least into the early 1940s.

Orwell and Spain’s legacy

His time in Spain was the most important experience of Orwell’s life. There he saw ‘wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism which I never did before.’ In Barcelona he saw that ‘the working class was in the saddle,’ and that ‘the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist.’ This was ‘a state of affairs worth fighting for.’

The conclusion he took from Spain was that the Communist Parties were agents of Stalin’s foreign policy rather than agents of the socialist revolution. In 1946, he wrote that it was his experiences in Spain that ‘turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.’

The May Days were important. One reason Barcelona eventually fell without a fight was because of the demoralisation they created. In speaking out against what the Communists had done, Orwell was swimming against the tide. But he was telling the truth.

The Poum leader, Andreu Nin, as Prestson states, was murdered by NKVD agents, dressed in Francoist uniforms to try and create a lie that he had been rescued by the fascists and taken to their capital in Salamanca. The remaining Poum leaders were put on trial in what the Communists hoped would be a Spanish re-run of the Moscow Trials. It was not to be.

The prosecution produced forged evidence in an attempt to show the POUM was working in league with the fascists. The defence was able to produce witnesses to discredit these forgeries, including the Socialist leader, Largo Cabellero, who was in office at the time of the May Days. The Poumistas were acquitted of being in league with the fascists, but found guilty of insurrection with four of the accused sentenced to fifteen years, one to eleven years and two found not guilty. The trial was not a show trial, but the Negrin government wanted a guilty verdict because it would aid their work of rebuilding the bourgeois state.

Negrin agreed to the banning of the Poum and the arrest of hundreds of its members, including fighters in its militia. He also did nothing over the actions of the Communist-run secret police, who tortured Nin prior to his execution. This was because Communist officers were central to the new Republican army and because he and they agreed that the revolutionary gains of the summer of 1936 had to be liquidated.

Was Orwell in danger following the May Days? His friend and commander, Georges Kopp, was arrested, was interrogated 27 times and, on one occasion, was kept in isolation in the dark without food for twelve days. Bob Smillie, grandson of the Scottish miners’ leader, died in prison from what Orwell and many others believed to be deliberate medical neglect. Orwell, who was recovering from a neck would and was already suffering bad health would, probably, not have survived such treatment.

Orwell and socialism

Orwell never regarded himself as a Marxist. In the summer of 1940 he looked to a version of the antifascist workers’ front to defeat a Nazi invasion, and believed revolution was imminent. In the Autumn of 1942, in his Looking Back on the Spanish War, he still looked back to his time in Spain for inspiration, recalling ‘the Italian militiaman, who shook my hand in the guardroom, the day I joined the militia.’

He continued, commenting on the militia man’s face: ‘… which I saw only for a minute or two, remains with me as a sort of visual reminder of what the war was really about. He symbolises for me the flower of the European working class, harried by the police of all countries, the people who fill the mass graves of the Spanish battlefields and are now, to the tune of several millions, rotting in forced-labour camps … The question is very simple. Shall people like that Italian soldier be allowed to live the decent, fully human life which is now technically achievable, or shan’t they? Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not? I myself believe, perhaps on insufficient grounds, that the common man will win his fight sooner or later, but I want it to be sooner and not later – some time within the next hundred years, say and not some time within the next ten thousand. That was the real issue of the Spanish war, and of the present war, and perhaps of other wars yet to come.’ His hopes were raised by the landslide Labour election win in August 1945, but then disillusion set in.

Preston’s charge against Orwell is that he was a Cold War warrior. Since his flight from Catalonia, he had been very hostile to Stalinism and its influence on the left. With the onset of the Cold War, despite his sharp criticism of the USA, he saw the USSR as the greater evil. That led him into collaboration with the British secret services’ Information Research Department. This was a bad mistake. It needs to be taken into account that Orwell was by now a very sick man, and tuberculosis would lead to his early death. However, it would be wrong to think that Homage to Catalonia, written in 1937-8, when Orwell was clearly on the anti-Stalinist left (very much a minority current) was somehow a Cold War book when that only commenced a decade later.

In 1947, he wrote in the American left-wing journal, Partisan Review: ‘Socialism does not exist anywhere, but even as an idea it is at present valid only in Europe. Of course, Socialism cannot properly be said to be established until it is world-wide, but the process must begin somewhere, and I cannot imagine it beginning except through the federation of the western European states, transformed into Socialist republics without colonial dependencies. Therefore a Socialist United States of Europe seems to me the only worth-while political objective today.’

Agree or disagree, Orwell was looking for an alternative to a simple choice between Washington and Moscow. Preston is writing a polemic here in two chapters, one on Orwell directly, the other on him and other anti-Stalinist witnesses, and he relishes a polemic! As with anything Preston, writes I would recommend Perfidious Albion. There is a brilliant chapter on members of the International Brigades Medical Services, and throughout he nails British complicity with Spanish fascism.

i Helen Graham, The Spanish Republic at War 1936–1939, (Cambridge University Press 2002), p.338.

ii George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, (Penguin 2001), pp.194-5 and p.203.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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