Mark Perryman of philosophy football explains why this Saturday's anniversary matters
his Saturday, 7 December, marks the 75th anniversary of the 1938 return of International Brigade’s British Battalion from Spain and their epic battle for Spanish land and freedom. From over fifty countries some 35,000 men and women had volunteered to join the fight. Britain and Ireland provided one of the largest contingents, 2,300 volunteers, around 500 of whom never returned, losing their lives on the battlefield.
The Spanish Civil War is part of our cultural history, it has produced a literature, Orwell, Hemingway and Laurie Lee in particular, and a poetry, that has helped ensure this. Yet it is a distortion to think this was a cause solely of artists and intellectuals, most of the volunteers were working-class militants, Communists in particular, miners from South Wales, dockers, building workers. Virtually none had military training, they know just how risky, deadly, the proposition they were signing up for.
his was an era of the most intense idealism. Whatever the contemporary views of the role and tactic of this group or that in Spain the maxim of the iconic Spanish Communist MP, Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria “ It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees’ is the kind of sentiment we should all be able to respect, even if only a precious few will ever embrace such beliefs with the courage and commitment to match the International Brigaders.
Was Spain a defeat? Of course it was. Not until 1975 would Franco be gone and Spanish democracy restored. Yet without the International Brigade and the battle the Spanish Republic fought things would have been a whole lot worse. It was Spain and the 'Aid Spain' movement that helped ignite a popular anti-fascism in Britain, across Europe and in America too. From the US the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was key to Spain’s battle. In Britain despite Cable Street in 1936 Mosley’s Blackshirts were still attracting massive support, in fact since 1936 membership of the British Union of Fascists had grown fivefold and their so-called ‘peace' rallies on the eve of War were attended by many thousands.
Non-intervention by the British government on Spain’s side, the horrors of the carpet-bombing of civilians at Guernica, the role played by the armed support, airpower in particular, sent by Hitler and Mussolini in support of Franco. All were revealed against the backdrop of the selfless heroism of the International Brigade and the terrible toll suffered by the Spanish people. In the process helping to turn the popular mood against the appeasement of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy that characterised mainstream politics in 1938 as the International Brigade returned.
This is why the international Brigade mattered, then and now. Today we talk of ‘another world is possible. They risked their lives, many lost their lives, in the most deadly arena of all, armed combat, to try to make that happen. A moment of our history 75 years on to remember and to celebrate.
Philosophy football have produced a anniversary return of the british battalion t-shirt available at a special discount, just £18.99 for saturday's anniversary
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.